By Kevin Fitchard
Mar 26, 2007 12:00 PM
Chicago, Helsinki and Seoul are represented in what promises to be an interesting social and technological experiment. Sprint's Mobile WiMAX ecosystem is not only figuratively bringing three arch-competitors together to devise a technology for Sprint's upcoming nationwide 4G rollout, it's bringing those three vendors together quite literally under the same roof.
Coordinating it all is Barry West, Sprint's chief technology officer and new president of the carrier's WiMAX project. West, though normally an outspoken proponent of cellular technology, has taken on international standing of late, becoming WiMAX's greatest champion and certainly its most sought after spokesman in just nine months. The Herndon project isn't just more WiMAX boosterism or Sprint self-promotion. West assures that there is much more substance to the project. The IEEE 802.16e spec may be a standard, and the member companies of the WiMAX Forum may be on track to commercialize it, but WiMAX is still a fetal technology, and it's up to the early adopters to see that it comes to term. If Sprint can influence its development along the way, than so much the better, West said.
“Clearly one of the advantages of this collaboration is collectively, we're the 800-pound gorilla,” West said. “Choosing these bigger guys as partners makes it easier to push the technology forward.”
The technical standard may be set in stone, but the numerous ways that standard can be implemented are still up in the air, West said. Specifically, Sprint is targeting the profiles the WiMAX Forum will select for certification. The technology is standard, but for every type of deployment, there is a different profile, taking things from spectral band to channel sizes to duplexing scheme into account. A 2.3 GHz system in Korea functions much differently than a 2.3 GHz system in Florida, as the requirements of how the technology can be configured and what services it can be used for differ by country. And even beyond those radio considerations, there are huge variations in the technology itself, with different profile waves supporting mobility, quality of service (and therefore voice over IP) and smart antenna technology. The profile nature of WiMAX makes it a technology of many standards, and Sprint gets a lot of wiggle room in shaping its own.
“I don't think what we're doing is in any way in conflict with the WiMAX Forum's efforts,” West said. “We're leveraging the WiMAX standard, but one has to acknowledge that WiMAX is not fully developed as a technology yet.”
Sprint is identifying some very specific requirements for its vendor partners. Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum is not unique, but it definitely owns the majority of it in the U.S market. Outside of the U.S., 2.5 GHz is designated for broadband wireless in a few other countries, though more have spectrum in the closely aligned 2.3 GHz bands. Even within that spectrum, Sprint is asking for 10 MHz channels and eventually 20 MHz channels, channel sizes much bigger than the spectral chunks many global carriers have to work with. Sprint is also specifying smart antenna equipment and full mobility from day one. Sprint is even going so far as to designate the particular class of Access Service Network Gateways to enable vendor interoperability between network components.
That kind of tailoring to Sprint's specific needs, however, runs the risk of creating too specific a technology — one that Sprint can use, but nobody else can. If Sprint creates for itself a custom-built version of WiMAX, the advantages of the standard could disappear; the economies of scale of globally standardized equipment and millions of interoperable devices don't kick in. But Intel, a critical participant in the WiMAX Forum as well as in Sprint's ecosystem, said that Sprint and its vendor collaborators are fully aware of where that line is drawn.
Joe Nardone, general manager of Intel's WiMAX solutions division, said Sprint is not hand-tailoring a WiMAX profile as much as it is creating a working template for what carriers actually want to see come out of the WiMAX Forum's certification process. At the same time, he added, Sprint's labs in Herndon will ensure that there is basic interoperability from the beginning between all of Sprint's ecosystem partners.
“The forum is where the debate happens,” Nardone said. “But where the rubber meets the road will be in [Herndon].”
Still, few people can argue that Sprint's ecosystem isn't having an impact on the future direction of WiMAX. With Sprint's announcement to move directly to multiple input/multiple output equipment supporting full mobility, most of the attention in the industry has shifted to the second wave of the forum's Mobile WiMAX certification trials, which includes the first profiles for smart antenna and feature-rich equipment, scheduled for later this year. The result is that very little is being made of the single input/single output gear that is in the forum's labs presently.
“Would we see a 20 MHz profile for WiMAX without Sprint?” asked Peter Jarich, wireless analyst for Current Analysis. “Probably not. Sprint is going to shape those profiles to its needs as much as it can, and there are going to be a number of operators that want to deploy WiMAX differently.”
But that was always going to be the case, regardless of whether Sprint formed its ecosystem or bought off-the-shelf equipment, Jarich said. The disparate number of bands and the specific requirements surrounding those bands are, by definition, a much more fragmented standard than Wi-Fi, for instance. Ironically though, Sprint's pursuits may do more to unify WiMAX than the regular standards process. While 2.5 GHz band is primarily available in the U.S., North America and parts of Asia, Europe is now considering what to do with the 2.6 GHz bands, which regulators set aside for future 3G expansion. By creating a successful business case for WiMAX at what amounts to the same frequency band, Sprint may push European regulators over to the WiMAX camp, which would do wonders for harmonizing WiMAX bands globally.
Tom Jasny, Samsung vice president of wireless broadband, explained that multiple factors beyond the standards affect the development of the technology. Though Samsung was the first operator out of the gate with a WiBro network in Korea, attention soon shifted to later-generation technologies. Samsung was in a position to greatly influence the development of WiMAX then by demonstrating a live network to the world, just as Sprint through its capital commitment is in a position to do the same.
“We all influence the standards bodies, but we don't control the pace. The standards always get there, but in some cases, you have to ask yourself ‘when?’” Jasny said. In Sprint's case, it is actively trying to step up the normal plodding pace of the standards process — to get the technology to the level it wants it at when it needs it. And because of that pressure and influence it's exerting, he said, Sprint will “have a disproportionate effect on WiMAX.”
That significance is not lost on West. When Sprint and Nextel began exploring possibilities for the 2.5 GHz bands, they considered multiple technologies, including Flarion's Flash-orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) solution and IPWireless's time division-CDMA. Sprint was able to accelerate the development of both technologies through its trials in Virginia, West claimed, and now the carrier is applying that same principle — albeit on a much larger scale — to WiMAX. “What we learned from Flarion and IPWireless is that we can accelerate the development cycle,” West said.
Sprint has formed collaborative ecosystems before. Most notably, it has worked with its cellular network vendors in the past to support interoperability between iDEN and CDMA radio access infrastructure and network controllers. But this will be its closest collaboration yet. Instead of a few pre-determined interoperability trials, Sprint and its vendor partners will have daily contact with one another and address problems as they come up in the Herndon facility. The relationship West explained is not only to ensure that they're all on the same page, but that they can push the technology's development forward at a record pace.
“They are very aware they have to make us successful to be successful themselves,” West said. “When they're in the same building as us, they are very focused on us, and if they have a problem we can get it solved very quickly. When we have a good day, they have a good day, and when we have a bad day they have a bad day.”
For their part, the three vendors are playing down the unusual situation they find themselves in; most say that apart from the close proximity, the ecosystem is little different from the normal interoperability work vendors do on their own. According to Brian Roan, senior solutions manager for Nokia Networks, the path Sprint is pursuing would have occurred naturally through forum debate, vendor interoperability trials and customer collaboration. Sprint, however, is streamlining the process in ordered to avoid a delayed or staggered development of the technology. The individual vendors themselves won't be collaboratively building a unified WiMAX platform, he said. In fact, the ecosystem will in no way fundamentally change the flagship base station product Nokia has developed.
“Co-location with the other vendors is not the driver here,” Roan said. “It's driven by Sprint's need for immediate access among all of those vendors.”
Motorola concurs. The difference, said Fred Wright, Motorola's senior vice president of networks and enterprise, is the interoperability trials are done on Sprint's turf, not the vendors' turf. Instead of connecting their labs through T-1 lines and doing remote tests, it's all being done directly under Sprint's watchful eye.
“We're each taking our individual hardware platform, and we've each written our own software,” Wright said. “The ecosystem isn't going to get that technical, but what it will do is select the right service profile and optimize it for Sprint.”
Motorola in particular has already landed several big service contracts apart from Sprint. By virtue of buying NextNet Wireless, a vendor formerly owned by Clearwire, Motorola is Clearwire's designated vendor for its U.S. and international WiMAX deployments, and Motorola is building out a countrywide network in Pakistan for Wateen Telecom. Those operators have very different requirements than Sprint, are opting for different WiMAX profiles and ultimately will be operating under completely different business models. If Motorola custom builds a base station for Sprint, the carrier would basically be getting a standardized proprietary technology — one that meets the WiMAX certifications specifications, but would be unusable by anyone other than Sprint. Wright acknowledged that Sprint, because of the size of its deployment, would ultimately have a larger say in what profiles may be dominant and the feature sets those profiles would include. But as with telecom standards, carriers ultimately dictate what the market builds.
“Sprint is by far our largest customer, but it certainly isn't our only customer,” Wright said. “This ecosystem will narrow the number of profiles and options in WiMAX down, but that's a good thing.”
The first trial deployments have already begun in the markets Sprint has assigned to its three infrastructure vendors. Motorola is building out Chicago, and Samsung is building out Washington, D.C. Nokia, however, wasn't just given the market of its U.S. headquarters, Dallas; it's also been assigned the other Texas markets of Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Though technically it won't have WiMAX-certified gear until the end of the year or even later, Sprint isn't cutting back on the throttle.
That is perhaps the biggest benefit of Sprint's ecosystem. By bringing the largest players in the WiMAX infrastructure and mobile handset market together, Sprint doesn't have to wait until the technology has passed all of the hurdles of certification and interoperability. In fact, Sprint can help push the technology over those hurdles, said Current Analysis' Jarich. More than just creating a technology, Sprint's ecosystem is creating a business model, which will do more than anything else to give WiMAX momentum and spur vendors and the standards bodies, Jarich said. Sprint's vision of WiMAX as a truly mobile “broadband anywhere” technology has received all kinds of lip service over the years, but until Sprint came along, no carrier was willing to pursue it, Jarich said.
“It was always out there but always as this utopian idea,” Jarich said. “Sprint is really setting the tone on how people are talking about WiMAX. Everyone's suddenly got a little bit of Barry West in them.”