August marks my 12th year covering wireless telecommunications in Asia, and while the business has changed remarkably since then, there have been a few dependable constants among the many changes I've seen. The biggest‾ Probably the CDMA Development Group's utter conviction that CDMA is the only wireless technology the world will ever need.
So it was a bit of a shock to hear the news in July that the CDG is officially going to work with LTE and Wimax. This is, after all, the same industry organization that blasted Telstra's decision to drop its CDMA network in favor of W-CDMA as 'a two-edged sword that will come back to bite them' and portrayed Wimax as potentially complementary to 3G but ultimately pointless because it doesn't offer anything different or better.
But then the CDG arguably doesn't have much choice in the matter. Its own evolution plans for 4G, Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB), has yet to find a significant backer even among its own heavyweight EV-DO operator members, who have decided to back LTE or, in Sprint's case, Wimax. Between that and its dismal 15% global market share of mobile users at the end of 2007, the CDG has finally been forced to admit that superior technology only gets you so far.
Not that you'd know this from visiting the CDG's web site. Touting the success of CDMA is still very much its business, and business is good, with headlines proclaiming 450 million users and growing, and its continued dominance in North America. Which is fine. That's what industry organizations do.
Still, the CDG has done it louder, better and at times more controversially than most, which is why it was a bit disorienting to see its COO, James Person, admit on stage at this year's imbX event in Singapore that 'LTE will be the winner' in the 4G race.
Moreover, he added, this was a good thing, because 4G is ultimately going to be a multimode story, with devices accessing multiple wireless networks, from LTE and Wimax to Wi-Fi and even Bluetooth. So from a standards standpoint, he said, 'It's better for the industry if we have fewer choices.'
Everyone's a winner
That's also why the CDG intends to work more closely with LTE and Wimax groups, according to long-time chairman Perry LaForge, who told the EE Times: 'At the end of the day, they rely on a common OFDM base, and we will work at full interoperability with LTE and Wimax "&brkbar;
Wireless operators may show a natural tendency toward LTE, but they know they cannot ignore the significant Wimax deployments that exist worldwide.'
So in that sense, the new CDG strategy isn't a retreat from EV-DO so much as an acknowledgement that it has to interoperate in a world dominated (in most markets, anyway) by other wireless broadband technologies. The other key element here is making sure that EV-DO evolves enough to be a sufficient gap-filler for LTE and mobile Wimax, both of which will kick off with limited coverage. LaForge has insisted that EV-DO operators aren't likely to completely rip out their CDMA networks anyway (an optimistic assertion, given how many CDMA networks have in fact been shut down in the past in favor of GSM), so it makes sense to help operators get the most out of what they have to ensure that they play a dependable role in the 4G ecosystem.
It's a smart move, if a little belated. The winner-takes-all mentality of the good old 2G days has no place in a 4G world. No single wireless standard could possibly serve the diverse needs, apps and business models that wireless broadband will have to support down the road. Despite the best efforts by HSPA and EV-DO players, Wimax is rolling out (mainly in developing markets as a fixed wireless network, but hey, a rollout's a rollout) and Wi-Fi hot spots are growing, not shrinking (except maybe the ones run by city councils in the US). Making them all play together is going to be messy, clunky and complex - to say nothing of finding a profitable business case. But interoperability is going to be the key - if not a guarantee - to 4G survival.