Handicapping The Wireless Broadband Spec Race

By Sean Michael Kerner

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CHICAGO -- Wireless is going even wider with broadband, of this there is little doubt. There is doubt, however, about which of the competing technology approaches will win out in the wireless broadband horse race.

During a panel session here at NXTcomm, panelists from Nokia Siemens Networks, Motorola and Bechtel Communications debated the various approaches and prophesized on which might emerge as victorious in the end.

The three principal contenders for wireless broadband are WiMAX (define), LTE (an acronym for Long Term Evolution) and UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband). LTE is seen as a natural progression for GSM-based networks (define), while UMB is seen as the migration path for CDMA-based mobile networks (define).

Ultimately, the three different broadband technologies have something in common.

"With regards to who will win the horse race, all three technologies are OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing) technologies (define)," said Jake MacLeod, chief technology officer for Bechtel Communications. The technology deploys a technique for transmitting large amounts of digital data over a radio wave "If you normalize all the frequency bands can you get north of 100 Mbps regardless of the flavors? Yes."

Mark Slater, a vice president with Nokia Siemens Networks, noted that the physics of the different wireless broadband technologies mean that, within reason, the end points of each approach have lots of potential as a pure radio choice.

In Slater’s view, the choice of which wireless broadband specification to go with depends on the individual carrier's infrastructure as well as the device's ecosystem. The regulatory issues of the environment in which the carrier operates and the spectrum available are also issues.

On the device ecosystem issue alone, wireless broadband has a growth curve to scale. For example, Bechtel's MacLeod noted, with more bandwidth comes a greater demand for processing speeds on mobile devices. Device manufacturers will also need to improve battery life. According to MacLeod, at 100 Mbps transmission rates, devices of today could only provide five or six seconds of power.

On the cost side of the equation, WiMAX (also known as 802.16) could have an edge.

Dan Coombes, senior vice president for Motorola, noted that 802.16 technology is based on 802.11 (WiFi). "You've seen a decrease in the cost of 802.11 and there is tremendous commonality so we think 802.16 will be much less than LTE or other technologies," Coombes said.

While battery life, cost and processing power are all important, so too is device simplicity, a point stressed by Nokia-Siemens’ Slater.

So who gets the inside track? The experts here noted that GSM is already widely deployed; LTE is seen as its evolution. WiMAX has no such legacy on the carrier side.

On the other hand, MacLeod said, WiMAX appears to be 18 months ahead of LTE and UMB in terms of standards and technology.

"So as an operator what do we do, wait for UMB or LTE or go with WiMAX?" MacLeod asked." It depends on your plan on whether you have to implement now in which case you go with WiMAX or if you can wait in which case you go with LTE."

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