We saw the politics surrounding standards making come into play last week when the IEEE halted standards work on the 802.20 standard after Intel and Motorola threatened to file formal complaints about the way the working group's chairman, Jerry Upton, allegedly handled draft proposals in favor of Qualcomm and Kyocera. Upton called himself an independent consultant, but reportedly revealed to the IEEE that he had a relationship with Qualcomm.
Intel and Motorola, both big WiMAX proponents, have been complaining since mid-November that Qualcomm, which subsequently merged parts of its technology submission with Kyocera's proposal, submitted an incomplete technology proposal and violated other IEEE procedures. It's clear that 802.20 is going to be a competitive threat to WiMAX, a technology heavily favored by both Intel and Motorola. Qualcomm was the one that revived the 802.20 process late last year after ironically being part of a group of companies that stalled the process early on when Flarion Technologies, now owned by Qualcomm, tried to push its FLASH-OFDM technology as the 802.20 standard. Now Qualcomm has been working to use its considerable influence on the 802.20 working group to finalize it by the end of 2006, in a bid to provide an alternative to mobile WiMAX. It's said that Qualcomm dominates the standards process as it holds an estimated two-thirds to three quarters of the votes in the 802.20 working group. Qualcomm has accused Intel and Motorola of stalling the process because 802.20 is a threat to the mobile WiMAX market. The 802.20 work group's charter runs out at the end of 2006.
In a statement on the IEEE website regarding his decision to suspend the group, chairman of the IEEE Standard Association (IEEE-SA), Steve Mills said: "The working group has been the subject of several appeals from the very beginning of the group, with three appeals now pending at one level or another, and recent activity in the group appears to have become highly contentious-significantly beyond what is normally experienced in IEEE-SA. A preliminary investigation into the group's operation revealed a lack of transparency, possible 'dominance,' and other irregularities in the working group."
Another interesting point is that Qualcomm's proposal isn't even based on Flarion's FLASH-OFDM technology, which is already operating commercially in other countries and has been tested extensively by major operators. Qualcomm's proposal is based on OFDM/OFDMA technology that was developed in-house. Like WiMAX, Qualcomm's proposal uses developed OFDMA for the data channels in the forward link and reverse link, but instead combines CDMA for the reverse-link control channels. Kyocera's proposal based on Arraycomm's High-Capacity Spatial Division Multiple Access (HC-SDMA) is in there too. The proposal also includes an FDD and TDD version and addresses power control, seamless hand-offs between cells and scalable bandwidth. Analysts have expected, however, that Qualcomm will likely change its proposal to match that of FLASH-OFDM or at least make an additional profile. FLASH-OFDM is the only OFDM/OFDMA-based technology that is proven to work in a mobile environment, a key advantage to commercializing any mobile OFDMA system.
Oddly, Qualcomm still has yet to announce any solid plans for FLASH-OFDM, despite the fact that it has closed its acquisition of Flarion. Ask Qualcomm officials, and they'll give you a "no comment." But you have to think that WiMAX proponents are keenly aware of the mobility advantages FLASH-OFDM technology has over WiMAX, whose backers have yet to finish working out the mobility part of the technology. Just getting that mobility know-how from Flarion is valuable.
Will Qualcomm try to stall mobile WiMAX? WiMAX backers have been blowing off the notion that Qualcomm is an IPR threat, saying it doesn't hold all of the cards like it does with CDMA. However, in addition to the patents it got from the Flarion acquisition, Qualcomm has also spent the last couple of years amassing its own patents related to OFDM/OFDMA. Qualcomm is one of the most adept players I know when it comes to patent squabbles. If you were in the industry in the late 1990s, you know Qualcomm managed to nearly stall the entire W-CDMA standards process until it made a major acquisition and cross-licensing deal with Ericsson. I remember W-CDMA proponents saying the same thing--that Qualcomm didn't own any significant patents for W-CDMA.
Although Qualcomm is not yet pushing pre-WiMAX and WiMAX vendors for royalty payments, Qualcomm has said it believes it holds IPR that applies to WiMAX and other OFDM-related technologies, like the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard the 3GPP is developing. A few vendors, such as Soma Networks, have cut license deals with Qualcomm for OFDM/OFDMA technologies in non-CDMA equipment for subscribers and infrastructure. Qualcomm isn't a member of the WiMAX Forum so hasn't agreed to any of its IPR policies. We could be in for some nasty fights as the battle for broadband wireless market share explodes. - Lynnette