WiMAX Forum President describes roadmap wherein WiMAX, LTE are complementary

with Declan Byrne, president of the WiMAX Forum

Declan Byrne

     Declan Byrne

Declan Byrne joined the WiMAX Forum as president in February and oversees an organization that counts 160 members and a staff of 14. The forum has reorganized to focus on three main areas: marketing, including the group's regional summit series of meetings around the world; technology, including technical certifications; and new market development, which is focused on non-telecom markets, including verticals such as aviation, oil and gas, transportation and utilities.

The group is holding its inaugural WiGRID PlugFest Event Sept. 10-14 in Vancouver, where global utility company experts and equipment vendors will be able to engage in hands-on testing of equipment. Byrne recently discussed the outlook for WiMAX with FierceBroadbandWireless Editor Tammy Parker. The following is a lightly edited version of that conversation.

FierceBroadbandWireless: Let's start out talking about the traditional mobile market. There is some growth in the former both internationally and in the U.S., where Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S), Virgin and Boost sub-brands as well as several MVNOs are now offering WiMAX. What does the future hold for WiMAX in the consumer-based mobile arena?

Declan Byrne: WiMAX as a mobile operator solution remains where the most of the subscribers are. And that would be in Japan, Korea and the United States… We were delighted to see UQ Communications in Japan report their Q2 numbers, and they're over 3.5 million WiMAX subscribers now. It's a tremendous ramp. During the last reporting period, UQ added more 4G subscribers than any other Japanese operator. So WiMAX outpaced LTE on Softbank's and NTT's networks during the last reporting period. That's testament to the value proposition in the Japanese market.

There's a lot of positive noise, which might speak to a longer runway for WiMAX as a mobile operator proposition than we might have thought three to six months ago… But let's not overplay what's happening either. We're delighted with the events of the past three to six months in terms of WiMAX's continued development in the mobile operator space, but as a mid- to long-term proposition--and we're very clear on this as well--most larger, classic cellular operators have either publicly declared or have an absolute clear intention to the LTE route. We're prepared for that, we understand that, and our remaining challenge is figuring out in the best way how WiMAX and LTE sit side by side.

I was speaking with Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) recently, and they've affirmed that they have a functioning, large, mobile WiMAX network to which they are still adding healthy numbers of subscribers. And that network is not going anywhere anytime soon--as in the next 24- to 36-month time period, which is as far as they can look out. Yet they are testing, raising money and planning on an LTE network for reasons which they've articulated publicly, for capacity help, congestion help and those sorts of things. But they're publicly and privately devoted to their WiMAX network.

FierceBroadbandWireless: The forum appears to have determined there are more opportunities for WiMAX in vertical sectors of the fixed wireless arena. Which sectors appear the most promising?

Byrne: Utilities/smart grid, aviation, oil and gas remain the most obvious near-term solutions for which there is uptake in the market, and we as a forum and as an ecosystem are spending quite a bit of time making sure that WiMAX is a best fit solution.

What we're doing particularly on the aviation and the utility side is developing, establishing and publishing a technical profile around WiMAX, which is required by those two industries. We have brought together members of the utility industry and members of the aviation industry, respectively, in the form of working groups, which are drafting and publishing requirements documents. These speak to particularities in WiMAX that those industries want to see; that it's a great fit. I'm talking about the uplink bias in the airlink, which is very different from the mobile operator [model], which would have more traffic on the downstream to consumers.

For industrial networks, [the focus is on] the upstream… So we're incorporating an uplink bias and mandating technical changes to the products that would support that. We're also mandating as part of this requirements process an Ethernet convergence sub-layer and some other features like that. The goal--at the conclusion of this in the 2013 period--is to publish to the vendor community what the industrial markets want in products, so the vendors can build a standardized and interoperable solution.

FierceBroadbandWireless: What's going on with WiMAX 2, also called WiMAX Advanced, at this point? I think certification was planned for sometime this year, and UQ Communications in Japan was hoping to deploy the technology before year's end.

Byrne: Our commitment to UQ and KDDI was to develop a WiMAX Advanced certification program that met their needs and the industry's needs by the end of the year. We are on track to have that done. I believe their intention is to begin deploying WiMAX Advanced in their network in 2013…and we know the technology will be certifiable, from the statement I just gave to you, by the end of this year.

FierceBroadbandWireless: But do you see a commercial future for WiMAX 2 beyond that? It seems that acceptance has been rather lukewarm.

Byrne: There has been a modest uptake in operator commitments to WiMAX Advanced. That's a matter of fact. We have a lot of interest from a number of operators. We have committed public interest from UQ Communications and YTL in Malaysia, and I think the ecosystem in concerned that we may not be able to build a really robust ecosystem around the demand of two operators, which drives the volume pricing that the broader operator community is looking for.

It's obvious why this is happening, right? Mobile operators--whether they're 3GPP-based or WiMAX-based--are not sure which direction to head. Our goal as a forum is to describe a roadmap and a way forward wherein WiMAX and LTE are complementary toward one another. We unlock investor money so WiMAX networks can grow. Whether it's WiMAX with LTE alongside; whether it's WiMAX today to WiMAX Advanced as in the UQ case; or WiMAX to multiple radio technologies; or whether it's Wi-Fi, HSPA or who knows what. But you're not wrong. There's clearly been modest operator commitment to WiMAX Advanced.

FierceBroadbandWireless: I think a lot of people look at TD-LTE as WiMAX's direct replacement, which is a view probably fostered by Clearwire's shift in focus. Does widespread adoption for TD-LTE leave room for WiMAX?

Byrne: If I was a betting man I would imagine TD-LTE networks will begin to come into their own--in a way that will matter to the market, in a commercial way--not until 2014. So between now and then I think WiMAX will continue to have a nice runway because there are operators who hold TDD spectrum that have built WiMAX networks who will continue to secure those networks technically and commercially. If your question really is, 'In the 2014 time frame when we see the advent and deployment of TD-LTE networks of a scale that will matter, what will happen to WiMAX?' I don't know the answer to that.

My belief is that there are operators that have built large WiMAX networks that will maintain those networks and will want to sweat that asset for as long it delivers value into their networks. Again, I do not imagine--this is Declan Byrne opining--that Clearwire, UQ, KT or even PacketOne for that matter, the large and mid-size WiMAX network operators, are going to be shelving that contributing WiMAX network anytime soon, even in the mid-term. I think they will be focused on bringing LTE as a parallel [technology] into their networks and finding spectrum to do that… I don't see the advent of TD-LTE networks, again which I would imagine beginning in the 2014 time frame, putting those WiMAX networks out of business. I think there will be a complementary parallel network paradigm for some period of time. How long that is, I can't tell you.