Friday, July 24, 2009

IEEE Mobile WiMAX Symposium - Part II

As I mentioned in Part I, the IEEE Mobile WiMAX Symposium (July 9/10 in Napa, CA) was a small workshop-style meeting that provided a great opportunity to interact with leaders in the field of 4G technology. I enjoyed the mix of keynote presentations on technology directions and vision, along with the technical papers sessions that were deep into the details of theory and applications.

2nd Day Opening Keynote

Stanford professor Arogyaswami Paulraj, who is also CTO & Co-Founder of Beceem Communications, opened the 2nd day of the Symposium with his presentation on WiMAX – Enabling the Mobile Internet. Beceem is one of the top three providers of WiMAX chipsets. (note: For more information on 4G chip set vendors, see my report
on The Emerging 4G Wireless Landscape in the U.S., Operators, Chip Sets and Consumer Electronics.)

The perspective of a small chip vendor's point-of-view provided an interesting contrast to the 1st day keynote by Intel Fellow and Mobility Group CTO Dr. Siavash M. Alamouti. Dr. Paulraj had also founded Iospan Wireless, an early pioneer in MIMO-OFDMA that was acquired by Intel in 2003, providing one of the early pieces of Intel's WiMAX push.

Grading WiMAX Development

From his early involvement in WiMAX development, Dr. Paulraj presented an assessment of how well the objectives for WiMAX circa 2002/2003 have been met.

  • Get national administrations to allocate large chunks of new spectrum (> 2.0 GHZ band) for broadband wireless - GOOD
  • For the U.S., Clearwire has a wealth of 2.5GHz spectrum. Disappointments have been in Europe, and in China's decision to go their own way with TD-CDMA. (Though there is some feeling that China is not a done deal as of yet).
  • Create new operators and convert 3G incumbent operators to pursue this new opportunity - MIXED
  • Some new operators have emerged, such as Clearwire (U.S.), UQ (Japan), Packet One (Malaysia), but most existing 3G operators have chosen to wait for LTE development.
  • Build a large eco-system with strong competitionGOOD, perhaps TOO GOOD
  • Dr. Paulraj made the point that the WiMAX initiatives may have been "too good", in that so many companies have joined the ecosystem that there is intense pricing pressure and competition, leaving "not enough margin in the system". He cited an example from India, where a $42 WiMAX dongle is already below the price of equivalent 3G device.
  • Keep Intellectual Property Rights overhead low - GOOD
  • The IPR situation for WiMAX is generally much better than for LTE, where some operators remain cautious because key participants in LTE development, such as Qualcomm, are not participating in the pooling of patents.
  • Start with fixed broadband and evolve to nomadic and eventually mobilityTOO CAUTIOUS
  • Dr. Paulraj stated that the mobile version of WiMAX could have been developed earlier, but was held up for resolution of handoff issues. As a result, "a couple of years" were lost in the process.
On the State of WiMAX 2009

In the "assets" column for the current state of WiMAX, Dr. Paulraj listed:

  • Cost/bit far below any competition due to cheap and plentiful spectrum. In India, WiMAX spectrum was acquired at one-tenth of 3G cost. He estimated that WiMAX will deliver one-fourth to one-fifth, maybe even one-eight the cost/bit of 3G.

  • 3-4 yr lead of MIMO, OFDM in WiMAX over LTE.
In the "liabilities" column:
  • Need to build more momentum behind IEEE 802.16m story.
  • Need stronger players for chip sets; 3 companies Sequans, Beceem, GCT are too small, and barely profitable. Need more consolidation.
Dr. Paulraj expressed a concern for the scale advantage that the major semiconductor companies have in LTE, with Qualcomm and ST-Microelectronics accounting for more than 20,00 people, whereas the top three WiMAX vendors altogether have only ~500.

The Worldwide WiMAX Footprint

To complete it's U.S. deployment Clearwire will require $2-4B. In his presentation, Dr. Paulraj shared his insight that he "understands they will get that soon". He emphasized the need to support dual-mode 3G/4G connectivity in order to achieve national coverage - a strategy that Sprint and Clearwire have now officially announced they will implement in August.

Beceem has been a provider of WiMAX chips to BSNL in India, which has deployed ~1M modems and 4,000 base stations with plans for 3.5M modems and 8,000 basestations later this year. Dr. Paulraj said that India will be a “huge opportunity” for WiMAX.

WiMAX Semiconductor Projections

Beceem's estimates of WiMAX chips sales are somewhat lower than those of the WiMAX Forum, predicting handsets to be the smallest application category, with embedded laptops the largest. The Beceem chip forecast (in 000s) is shown in the figure below. Handsets for WiMAX have yet to be introduced in the U.S., though they are avaialble in Taiwan and Russia. Sprint has announced plans to have a tri-mode (CDMA, WiFI, WiMAX) handset in 2010. Samsung, who has now introduced the WiMAX Mondi "tablet" MID for Clearwire's service, develops their own chips and could be developing a phone for Sprint/Clearwire as well.

WiMAX Non – Handheld Markets

I mentioned the "internet of things" in my earlier post. Some of the "non-handheld" markets for WiMAX that
Dr. Paulraj listed are:

  • Home access: CPEs, set-top boxes.
  • Small-business access: routers, gateways.
  • Vehicular access: car, bus and rail internet.
  • Sensor networks: public safety, transportation, smart grid.
  • Equipment automation: agricultural combines, military.
  • M2M: vending machines, fixed and mobile billboards - digital signage.
Dr. Paulraj sees sensor nets as the largest opportunity, with WiMAX embedded in video cameras for consumer and public safety applications. (See CiscoLive! and the impact of video). He sees an opportunity for WiMAX to become dominant in non-handheld applications, with a large early lead over LTE.

Beceem Chipset Roadmap

For handset applications, the roadmap for the rest of 2009 calls for introduction of an integrated WiMAX chip for handset applications that integrates VOIP plus 3G/2G and WiFi. Year 2010 would see the addition of application and media processors along with GPS. For non-handset applications, integration of video processing is planned for 2010.


The presentation concluded with the vision that the future of WiMAX is to "get in bed" with 3G and work together. In the U.S. that is well underway in the Sprint-Clearwire collaboration. Perhaps having lived the lessons of how hard it is to build a successful chip company, Dr. Pauraj advised that the opportunities to look at are in applications of WiMAX, and not in chips.

In the Q&A, I asked "Does Clearwire’s spectrum advantage give them a market advantage over the LTE plays that Verizon and AT&T can make in the future?"

Dr. Paulraj responded that spectrum is a “huge” value, otherwise operators need to split cells to cover capacity needs. With a wealth of spectrum you can simply add radios. He stated that in Europe the 3G network is maxed out already. In India there is also a wealth of WiMAX spectrum at 80MHz, more than all 2G/3G operators.

He stated that Clearwire must go to the MVNO model to package 3G/4G services. The same applies in Japan, but India is not seeing it that way yet. He confirmed my analysis that Verizon and AT&T do not have enough spectrum today to match Clearwire's average of 120MHz of 2.5GHz WiMAX spectrum.

Another questioner asked: "In the battle between LTE and WiMAX, what comes next? Will they merge?"

The answer was that LTE incumbents Qualcomm and Ericcson don’t want to talk about it, because they are late and they lack sufficient spectrum. Dr. Paulraj believes that "Politics won’t make it happen, but it could happen through a common engine – products not standards".


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1 comment:

wild horse said...

Thank you for your summary. It is very interesting to know the point of views from some experts who are truly working in the industry. I am just a theoretical researcher and it is for me to know how the world moving. Thanks again, Mr. Analog :))