WiMAX and the Evernet

Stephen DeAngelis

August 31, 2007

As a so-called “road warrior,” I spend more time traveling annually on business than I get to spend at home with my family. On the road, however, keeping in touch with my company is critical. Mobile phones are crucial to my connectivity, but so is the ability to receive and send email. Sometimes that can be a problem; especially in areas I have labeled the Edges of Globalization. In these areas, the infrastructure necessary to support a robust broadband system either doesn’t exist or remains in its nascent state. Many people, including my colleague Tom Barnett, believe the day will come when we will live in an “always on, always connected” world. Tom calls the infrastructure that supports this vision the Evernet. I have written a couple of posts about technology being developed to support the Evernet [Ubiquitous Sensors and the Evernet and The Economist and the Evernet]. As I wrote yesterday, other developed countries are connecting to faster broadband connections and at a quicker rate than is the U.S. Cliff Edwards, writing in BusinessWeek magazine, discusses U.S. wireless broadband efforts focusing on WiMAX [“The Road to WiMax,” 3 September 2007].

 

Edwards’ article explains how Intel Executive Vice-President Sean M. Maloney worked to create a coalition around WiMax and how it should unfold. WiMax stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. For any road warrior, the two most important words in that title are “worldwide” and “interoperability.” Anyone who follows this weblog knows that I am a big proponent of globalization and standardization. According to the article, when Maloney first received his charge from Intel to make broadband access a priority, he immediately envisioned a world connected via fiberoptic cable — the route Japan is taking. Early meetings with telecom companies, who Maloney envisioned as partners in this venture, put a chill in such plans. Edwards reports that the telecom companies claimed that cable would cost $300/foot to install throughout the U.S. and that the landscaping bill for burying all that cable in established neighborhoods would top $90 billion in addition to the baseline installation cost. Ouch!

 

Good solutions generally come from answers to good questions. In this case, the $90 billion question came from Intel’s then-chairman Andy Grove who asked, “Can we do it with wireless?” No reason to replace all that fancy shrubbery if you can bypass it altogether! That started Maloney’s search for the right technology.


Today, the answer [to Grove’s question] is clearly yes, and that’s largely thanks to Maloney. He has led an industrywide effort to develop and market what was in 2002 an obscure wireless broadband technology only a few hundred engineers had heard of. Indeed, after logging hundreds of thousands of air miles, he has rounded up a remarkable coalition of chip, PC, consumer electronics, networking, and software companies in an effort to radically reshape the future of broadband with what’s now called WiMAX. Intel faced withering criticism from tech analysts when it first cast its lot with WiMAX, but the critics have toned down their rhetoric. That’s because dozens of wireless telecom operators around the globe have also placed bets on WiMAX and plan to spend $13 billion over the next few years to build 300 such networks.”

Unlike those sometimes-hard-to-find Wi-Fi hot spots, WiMAX holds the promise of wide area coverage with Internet speeds 50 times faster. That is music to anyone whose work keeps them away from a traditional office setting.

 

WiMAX technology and businesses built upon it still have a lot to prove. But once these networks are finished, WiMAX will be poised to deliver video entertainment and voice telephone services that will compete with traditional telecom and cable-television services. It also will extend the range of wireless e-mail and Web-surfing services in mobile computers. Beginning next year, stores will stock new laptop computers equipped with Intel’s WiMAX-capable chips, code-named Echo Peak. Intel’s role as head WiMAX cheerleader makes sense. WiMAX is similar to Wi-Fi, which was embedded in Intel’s Centrino line of chips, but it offers dramatic improvements. Wi-Fi extends traditional wire-based broadband networks for just a few hundred feet, and Internet access speeds slow to a crawl when lots of people are online in the same area. Meanwhile, high-profile schemes for blanketing whole cities with cheap or free Wi-Fi networks aren’t working out. WiMAX provides superfast connections for up to 30 miles. You could stroll from your house conducting a conference call, pause to exchange hefty data files, and later dial in to your TiVo to download an episode of CSI. WiMAX avoids digital traffic jams by using licensed radio waves that guarantee each customer a certain level of service.

According to Edwards, Maloney deserves credit for almost single-handedly bringing WiMAX to the threshold of operability. Edwards notes that Maloney had lots of help, including the Korean giant Samsung, but his vision and will seem to have been the driving forces that kept things moving when obstacles were encountered.

 

After Maloney had his revelation about the potential of wireless broadband in 2002, he set up a small group to explore alternatives. At first, nothing seemed too wacky to consider—even using giant blimps as airborne radio transmitters. But after meeting with Martin Cooper, considered the father of the cell phone, Maloney became convinced the most economical idea was to emulate cellular networks and send wireless signals from fixed transmitters. AT&T had tried that approach, using a precursor of WiMAX, in Project Angel, an ill-fated effort in 2000 to provide wireless broadband connections to homes. The project was a non-starter because there was no industry standard at the time, thus no assurance that equipment made by different companies could work together or be produced cheaply. Maloney studied Project Angel and concluded that WiMAX could work because of its range and bandwidth, but only if he could line up industry support. Maloney’s first hurdle was Intel itself. WiMAX was so lightly regarded that when he raised it as a possibility to a group of top managers, all he got were blank stares. His pitch: Intel and allies could create a standard technology for long-range wireless transmissions, much as Intel and Microsoft had created the so-called Wintel standard for the personal computer. With a lot of companies building products based on the same ground rules, economies of scale in manufacturing could be achieved quickly. Intel would build tiny radios into laptops that could connect easily to a worldwide WiMAX network. Also, he proposed, the chipmaker should lay the groundwork for a mammoth WiMAX ecosystem by investing more than $1 billion in carriers and other companies. The proposal provoked hot debate within Intel. In developing countries, WiMAX seemed like a sure winner. Governments there were grappling with massive costs of building fiber-optic or wire-based networks; a cheap, powerful wireless infrastructure was just what they needed. But in North America, the source of much of Intel’s business, many consumers were becoming connected by other means—including fiber-optic cable to the home and high speed cellular networks.”

All of that has a familiar ring for me. Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach is based on the same logic trail followed by Maloney. Establish standards, implement them widely, and quickly gain economies of scale. As Edwards’ notes, in developing countries this approach seems like a sure winner. The road to WiMAX, however, has become a classic head-to-head battle like the one going on between HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. The alternative in this case is one created by Qualcom and Kyocera.

 

Qualcomm remains the chief opposition to WiMAX. No surprise there. It banked more than $6 billion in 2005 from sales of wireless chips and royalty fees on its technologies. Qualcomm took the battle to a committee of the IEEE that was reviewing proposals for technologies that could deliver high-speed Internet access for laptop computers and other mobile products. Intel and Samsung presented their WiMAX proposal in late 2005 but were voted down repeatedly in favor of a rival wireless broadband technology backed by Qualcomm and Kyocera Corp. Intel and its allies suspected foul play and complained that Qualcomm had stacked the committee with people on its payroll, including engineers flown in from a Russian paper mill who had little knowledge of wireless issues. Those allegations weren’t proven, but the standards body in mid-2006 replaced four members, including its chairman, Jerry Upton, who was a paid Qualcomm consultant. After that, the committee approved WiMAX as a mobile communications standard. … Qualcomm suffered another blow in July, 2006, when Intel, Motorola, and Bell Canada teamed up to invest more than $1 billion in Clearwire, the biggest holder worldwide of spectrum that could be used for WiMAX. The company, founded in 2004, was backed by ‘the wizard of wireless,’ Craig O. McCaw, who started the first major U.S. mobile phone service company, McCaw Cellular.”

Edwards asserts that the battle is far from over, even though Sprint/Nextel has also signed on with the Intel/Samsung team. Eventually, there will be a clear winner even if both systems survive. The Microsoft/Apple rivalry has survived for decades despite Microsoft’s clear dominance. For developing countries, adoption of the winner’s system means that it will get a jump start when it comes to creating a nationwide broadband system that ties to the international economy. The battle will be interesting to watch, but I’m guessing that smart money is going to go with the Intel/Samsung team because those two companies routinely find themselves atop the list of the world’s most innovative companies.