Beyond Cellular

Updated: Nov 27 2006, 05:30am hrs
A new wireless order seems to be in the making. The much-awaited 3G is yet to dawn on India. But global phone majors have already started tuning their strategies to other microwave technologies like mobile WiMaxa faster, longer-range version of Wi-Fi that doesnt require users to be stationary.

Korea Telecom is planning to expand the coverage of its mobile WiMax service, WiBro to entire Seoul early next year. Sprint is also betting high on the new wireless standard in its $3 billion investment to rollout a nationwide network in the US. Mobile industry around the world is already abuzz with speculations about WiMax overtaking 3G, though mobile WiMax standards have just moved out of the approval stage.

In Indian telecom and technology circles too, senior executives are wondering if it makes sense for mobile companies to bypass 3G (expected next year) and move on to mobile WiMax (could take one year longer). 3G is learnt to be limited to music and video downloads in its three years of existence in UK.

And WiMax proponents are quick to point out its superiority in data applications.

The way 3G has evolved, it is more suited for voice and WiMax is certainly a better solution for wireless broadband and for mobile data applications, insists Intel South Asia country manager, Ramamurthy Sivakumar. 3Gs evolution path has come from the voice side of the world, he argues.

GSM and CDMA camps, however cant believe that WiMax at its present level of development could compete with 3G. Wimax is still in its trial phase and mobile applications do not exist. The third generation wireless service is here with ready applications and handsets, says Qualcomm India and Saarc president Kanwalinder Singh.

Close to a dozen trails on mobileWiMax are learnt to be on in India. Telecom majors like Reliance, Bharti and BSNL are reported to have been allotted spectrum in some pockets. However, on a pan-India level, Indian mobile operators seem to be building their business models around GSM or CDMA and are in no hurry to byte the WiMax byte.

Bhartis vice-president (3G), Abhay Savargaonkar explains, WiMax is certainly emerging as a hot technology with a lot of promise in the right direction. But it is a little too early to move big bang to MobileWiMax. In my opinion, the two will not compete and rather complement each other for the next three years till MobileWiMax can take off in a big way. That would be the time to talk about who overtakes the other 3G or WiMax.

The skepticism is understandable especially for operators who have already deployed 3G enabled networks and are waiting for spectrum. But the economics at the backbone is only a part of the business equation.

Choice is not simply about the superiority of technology but is a combination of many factors like regulatory issues, availability of end user devices and spectrum. While spectrum bands are yet to be vacated in India, penetration level of mobile handsets (especially in India) is far higher than laptops. You also have to look at interoperability and roaming issues. CDMA, for instance, offered high data speeds than GSM but suffered because of lack of roaming in Europe, says Savargaonkar Spectrum is crucial, agrees Sivakumar. Though Trai is headed in the right direction, we need to get some of those frequency bands vacated from government departments like department of space and 16 MHz currently recommended might be too small, we need about 30 MHz to run a viable service, he insists. He is also pushing for allowing operators to chose technology of their choice.

For many, WiMax could be the logical evolution from 3G and could compete with GSM and CDMA technologies on the horizon. Or, instead of parallel development or some point of intersection, WiMax could be next stage in the wireless mobile broadband technology, an evolution from EVDO (Evolution-Data Optimised) or HSDPA (High speed down link Packet Access).The logical evolution to WiMax would lead in the creation of IP networks in the wireless broadband, says Jataayu Software chief technology officer Arun Tanksali. For a CDMA operator, the normal evolution would be from the current 3G to EVDO to the next stage of WiMax environment, agrees Tata Teleservices (Maharastra) vice president, operations P Madhavan.

EVDO would ensure the CDMA operators to provide separate channel for voice and data. That would ensure 180-200 kbps speed, a substantial improvement from todays 40-80 Kbps speed a mobile customer gets in CDMA environment, he predicts.

The convergence of mobile phones with all manner of digital consumer products and must-have functionality is a near obsession in the global handset business.

The first wave of Wimax equipment will be out early next year and by 2008, it will get integrated into various types of devices. Globally, more than 120 trials are on, says Sivakumar. Already companies like Brovis Wireless Networks are investing in India to manufacture wireless equipments for indoor use and last mile connectivity for telecom operators.

The equation will eventually boil down to sizzling speeds promised by WiMax opposed to the extensive coverage offered by 3G and other cellular world technologies. Though WiMax is not the only disruptive force in the mobile world, almost all analysts projections peg cellular to account for well over 90% of the mobile market even by 2008. Clearly, its not yet time for 3G to move over but a heterogeneous environment seems to be on its way, as we look forward to almost utopian speeds of 100 megabits per second within this decade.