Guest post - Mobile WiMAX: an answer to the network capacity crisis?

Technology evangelism can be a dangerous thing; new technologies rarely directly displace incumbent technologies. Each incumbent technology has a surrounding ecosystem that gives it network effect, cost and distribution advantages that the upstart initially cannot match. Rather, new technologies spread by finding new applications, and have properties that the older technologies see as unimportant. They can also acting as a complement to existing technologies. This process was famously documented by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma.

So, what about mobile WiMAX? We asked Liat Ben-Menashe, Director of Strategic Marketing, Broadband Mobility, at Alvarion, a pioneer in this space with 200 commercial deployments worldwide now:

At Alvarion we passionately believe that mobile WiMAX is going to have a positive, global impact on operators and consumers alike. Not only does this technology fit in with historical patterns of adoption, but also the full range of technological benefits are available right now, and suitable spectrum is also widely available. We therefore anticipate an open mobile WiMAX ecosystem to grow rapidly. The question is: what applications mobile WiMAX will be uniquely suited for?

The answer, we believe, is that operators must adopt a range of access technologies and combine them intelligently to solve delivery problems to a wide range of devices. Increasingly intelligent bearer-aware software will adapt the user experience to the appropriate bearer technology. This fits with the Telco 2.0 team's "data logistics" metaphor. In the world of physical logistics, delivery is made by combining road, rail, sea and air freight.

This process optimises a complex trade-off between cost, delivery time, and quantity delivered. Likewise in the world of digital logistics, telcos will need to combine multiple access technologies to support a wide range of consumer needs.

What's the problem?

Customers are changing their communications habits. They are adopting a broader range of devices, and behaviours that were not forecast when 3G networks were developed. For example, over 90% of mobile data traffic can come from laptops.

Consumer electronics devices were historically developed to serve a single market need. Now we see a transition to integrated ('converged') devices, supporting multiple markets, and taking previously fixed experiences mobile.

Operators are being compelled to seek new service models, while at the same time minimize costs in upgrading their core networks to deliver these new mobile broadband services. Somehow there remains a belief that one 1990s wireless architecture and technology can support all of this. It can't.

The emergence and rapid uptake of "always on" mobile broadband is propelled by new applications such as live video news, YouTube-like video sharing, and social media services. These mix a variety of traffic types, each requiring different priorities and air interface profiles. Some applications are very "chatty" presence-driven services, others are more like file transfers, and some are latency-sensitive voice and video streams.

Existing networks may be optimised for only one or two of these, and tend to be inefficient at managing all traffic types. Bringing up and tearing down the air interface to transfer just a few bytes can be very poor use of spectral capacity. The overall effect is unfavourable capacity utilisation and high cost structures. This is causing a capacity crunch in leading 3G markets, where data networks are largely optimised for short mobile phone web browsing sessions.

Operators now seek an effective, unified, technological solution capable of eliminating the capacity crunch caused by increased consumer 3G services demand. At the same time, adopting new technologies must address the issues of lowering CAPEX and OPEX. You'd hardly be surprised to learn that we think mobile WiMAX is the right tool for the job. Just as it costs five times as much to move a container by land as it does by sea, you need to pick the right mode of transport for the job of delivering complex mobile broadband services.

Why mobile WiMAX?

Mobile WiMAX has five specific advantages:

  1. Mobile WiMAX is capable of providing higher, cost-effective bandwidth in comparison to existing wireless services. For operators, this translates into the ability to meet increasing consumer demand for broadband-on-the-go.
  2. It's built from the ground-up to support Internet Protocol. As a "layer 2" only network technology it retains the proven simplicity, cost-effectiveness and adoption of dominant fixed technolgies such as Ethernet.
  3. It offers an open ecosystem, with easier integration with various 3rd party equipment and consumer electronics compared to the often heavily-encumbered licensing schemes for 3G technology.
  4. It fits with existing backhaul structures and points-of-presence via a single wireless infrastructure.
  5. It's easier and cheaper to manage.

Proof that it works: Taiwan's nation-wide WiMAX grid

There has been a recent successful deployment of a proof-of-concept network in Taiwan, which is a step towards creating a nation-wide WiMAX grid there. These real-world test scenarios, executed across two university campuses and a science park, produced excellent results, with trials running across eighteen sectors and stretching over 6 kilometers.

The full gamut of mobile WiMAX scenarios were implemented, including applications such as VoIP, video streaming, IPTV and document exchange during driving and walking. Clear handover reached up to 80 km/hour providing an enhanced user experience and paving the way for Taiwan to consider implementation of a national WiMAX network.

An equally important, but positive side-effect of the tests was that within a few days, tens of handset manufacturers connected themselves to the test network, creating a significant mobile WiMAX ecosystem. Demand for WiMAX is derived not only from the technology, but is driven from market players as well.

WiMAX and "The Net"

In many ways, Mobile WiMAX leverages a duplication of Internet business models. Operators must shift profitably from billable-event business models to more flexible revenue models based on sponsorships, advertising and many other different forms of services. By adopting an access technology more suited to the Facebook generation's usage patterns, they can build this business on a firm foundation.

[Ed. - Liat and team from Alvarion will be exhibiting in the Innovators Zone at the Telco 2.0 Executive Brainstorm, 4-5 Nov, London]