Intel demonstrates networking expertise

OvumIn advance of closing its acquisition of Infineon’s wireless solutions business, Intel hosted an unveiling of a whitepaper on how Wimax operators can optimally add LTE. That the event was held at all, and the timing, struck us as more notable than its technical recommendations.
A full year ago, the Wimax ecosystem “went silent” – as stated in the opening presentation. Wimax chip vendors already announced adding LTE capability at that time. Last May, Intel and Clearwire’s agreement was revised specifically to open the way for LTE deployment.
The event highlights that mobile broadband inextricably ties telecom to Intel’s home turf of device processors, and furthermore shows the unique nature of telecom. Entering a telecom ecosystem is a commitment more akin to parenthood than buying a house. Circumstances may change, but the network is an almost living thing for which one has continued responsibility.
Intel has a long history in communications, but beyond the LAN its presence seemed surprising. But of course the world has changed. End users expect broadband connectivity regardless of whether mobile or stationary; content and service providers expect to retain users even as the users roam.
As tablets displace laptops and desktops, Intel’s priority is ensuring its processor market remains well supported. Its mobile broadband roadmap targets multimode support, including concurrent multi-band: initially four to six LTE bands, five to seven 3G bands, and Wi-Fi.
The whitepaper positions Wimax as “one tool of several in the mobile broadband tool chest” – a graceful acknowledgement of reality rather than a new direction. Participants included operators (Clearwire and Sprint); infrastructure vendors (Huawei and Motorola); and chip-makers (Broadcom). Again, we were more struck by the group’s cooperation, particularly in two aspects that are especially important for telecom:
The two ends of the value chain must work directly together early on the roadmap. Both IC development cycles and network migration are long-pole schedule items. Technology vendors cannot create the right products without network operator participation in modeling, experiments, and trials.
Intel’s event demonstrates that it understands the telecom game, that it is slower moving not only due to long-lived infrastructure but because it is community based. Unlike consumer product vendors, even competing operators must cooperate in day-to-day operations, constantly handing off traffic, customers, billing information, and performance metrics.
What remains to be seen is how much Intel as a whole supports communications. A more cynical view is that Intel is just protecting its sizable investment in Wimax operators. Intel has invested over $1.6 billion in Clearwire/Sprint alone.
It also has an investment in UQ Communications, a Japanese network wholesaler that uses Wimax and is committed to upgrading to Wimax2. We believe the more relevant motivation is Intel must show it takes care of its ecosystem partners so future ecosystem partners will be willing to play.
Also, we have to recognize that companies are really composed of individuals. When we call out Intel and Clearwire as key players in the whitepaper, it may be more accurate to say Scott Richardson and his longtime associates. Richardson was dubbed “Mr. Wimax” by the press during his tenure at Intel, and then went to Clearwire to build its Wimax network.
Richardson has moved on to work on mobile broadband applications but said he felt a personal responsibility to steer Wimax into peaceful coexistence, approaching Intel’s Sean Maloney about pulling the working group together. When Maloney suffered a stroke last spring, Richardson again stepped into the breach.
Coincidentally, the release of the whitepaper was the same week Maloney returned to work, heading Intel Architecture Group. Now, the key question is how smooth the hand-off will be from Richardson back to Intel as a whole.