Politics and Mobile WiMAX

Ah, the politics surrounding standards. Last week we reported that Sprint Nextel withdrew from the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, a group of global mobile operators that banded together last year to push for a common vision for networks and technologies beyond 3G. The operator, which was a founding member of the group, dropped out because the group endorsed Long Term Evolution (LTE) and not Mobile WiMAX as a technology that meets the needs of its 18 operator members.

What are the implications here? Michael Thelander, head of Signals Research, which first reported on Sprint's withdrawal in a research report last week, says the move shows that the world's major operators have spoken. They won't be adopting Mobile WiMAX as a primary technology. Although operators such as India's Tata and Japan's KDDI are deploying WiMAX, Thelander says those investments won't represent their primary means of targeting the mobile Internet opportunity. It's telling that these operators didn't fight for Mobile WiMAX. And any hope WiMAX backers had for Vodafone deploying WiMAX beyond its one 802.16d market in Malta is probably lost, he said.

Interestingly, the NGMN group of operators didn't even pay lip service to Mobile WiMAX. They could have said Mobile WiMAX met their needs, too, but still primarily back LTE. They simply rejected it. Their rationale, said Thelander, was performance. On paper, vendors said LTE had better spectral efficiency than Mobile WiMAX, but in public some of those same vendors have said performance of the two technologies are comparable.

Mobile WiMAX "technology has a two-year advantage over LTE, but that didn't seem to matter, nor does it seem to matter that planned upgrades to Mobile WiMAX would have improved the performance of the technology to higher levels," said Thelander. These performance upgrades will occur before the next-generation of the Mobile WiMAX standard, which will be known as 802.16m. As Thelander notes, most of the NGMN member operators come from the 3GPP community, which sets the standards for WCDMA, HSPA etc., where "blood is thicker than water."

As a result, it appears that Sprint Nextel, later via Clearwire when the two merge later this year, will be the lone wolf when it comes to a major operator using Mobile WiMAX as its primary next-generation technology. Does that mean the future of Mobile WiMAX continues to rest heavily in the operator's (Clearwire's) hands? Sprint was exactly what Mobile WiMAX needed back when the operator decided to use the technology in mid-2006. It has single-handedly directed how the standard would be implemented, helped push technical readiness and brought device makers under its wing. Its sphere of influence may be far from over.

How the technology performs, how fast Clearwire rolls the technology out and how many subscribers it and its cable partners attract could have a major impact on the decisions of other would-be Greenfield Mobile WiMAX players, who may wish to wait for the TDD version of LTE given the economies of scale LTE promises. Of course, it may not help that the the new Clearwire's rollout will be on a market-by-market basis with 2010 or even 2011 delivering a reasonable footprint in the majority of the top 200 markets in the U.S.--Lynnette

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