ZDNetAsia : Why WiMax when there's 3G?

Why WiMax when there’s 3G?
By Eileen Yu, ZDNet Asia
URL: http://www.zdnetasia.com/news/communications/0,39044192,39311131,00.htm

BARCELONA–The industry is working fast to offer high-speed data connection to portal devices, but the market has split into two camps: one stands by wireless standards such as WiMax and Wi-Fi, while the other supports mobile technology 3G and HSDPA.

Wireless broadband technologies Wi-Fi and more recently WiMax are among the hot favorites. WiMax can support Web connection of up to 75Mbps and a single base station can cover an area with a radius of up to 30 miles.

But mobile standards 3G and High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), are fast becoming hot buzzwords. HSDPA is a beefed up version of the Wideband CDMA (WCDMA) 3G technology that specifically improves the downlink speed, and is capable of supporting data connection of up to 1.4Mbps.

Wi-Fi and WiMax have been largely confined to facilitating high-speed connectivity to laptops and PDAs, while 3G and HSDPA have focused on mobile phones. However, there are now suggestions that 3G can be extended to laptops, particularly as the data speeds offered by these mobile standards catch up to those provided by WiMax or Wi-Fi.

According to Carl-Henric Svanberg, Ericsson’s president and CEO, WiMax emerged because it presented an opportunity for fixed line providers to provide some level of mobility for their users.

But he noted that wireless users are limited to areas that have WiMax coverage fo Internet connectivity. In comparison, mobile network coverage is more extensive.

“Why would you want something [only] somewhere when you can have something everywhere?” he said. “We don’t see WiMax as a competitor to mobile technology.”

Tom Phillips, chief government and regulatory affairs officer, GSM Association (GSMA), agreed. He noted that the ubiquity and strength of mobility would continue to encourage people toward 3G.

“Over 80 percent of the world’s population has GSM coverage, but I don’t think that’s true for WiMax [coverage],” he said. “Why then would you want to invest some millions of dollars [building up] a WiMax network when you have a [GSM] network that already covers 80 percent of the world’s population?”

The industry has seen a huge transition toward mobility, but WiMax and Wi-Fi are not mobile technologies and are typically used to provide last-mile connectivity, said Phillips.

But Alex Tan, director of Qala Singapore, believes both mobile and wireless technology segments are complementary and can co-exist in the market. Qala, through its subsidiary QMax Communications, is the first Internet service provider (ISP) in Singapore to offer commercial WiMax service.

Each technology is targeted at different audiences or devices to the same audiences, under different scenarios, he said, in an e-mail interview.

Tan explained that while some manufacturers such as Samsung, are positioning WiMax as an alternative technology for mobile phones and handhelds, he said there is a “sizable use” for it as a wireless broadband replacement for wired devices.

“I see notebook users preferring WiMax if it becomes integrated [with the laptop], as is the case now with Wi-Fi,” he said. “Mobile and PDA users will still [opt for] 3G or HSDPA.”

Tan noted that although it is likely that WiMax could become prevalent in mobile devices, especially if the cost of WiMax chips are comparable to Wi-Fi chips, this trend may not extend so readily for 3G or HSDPA in notebooks.

But there is already indication that this is changing. Some hardware manufacturers are now looking to integrate mobile access technologies into their laptops.

Just this week, Intel signed an agreement with the GSMA to encourage hardware makers to integrate SIM card readers, 3G and other mobile connectivity into new desktop and mobile computers.

Dell’s U.K. office and China’s Lenovo recently announced plans to embed mobile connectivity into their laptops.

Some handset makers are also heading in the other direction, exploring plans to include Wi-Fi connectivity in their mobile phones.

No longer just 3G hype
While there were doubts initially whether 3G could live up to its hype, Svanberg believes this is no longer the case.

He acknowledged that the telecommunications industry could have done a better job introducing 3G to the market.

“We talked about 3G before it was there, in terms of the availability of handsets and services [then],” he said, adding that there was no “logical” evolution of how the market should move toward 3G, one step at a time. Instead, Svanberg said, everyone was taking strides that were too huge.

Today, 3G is a more cost-efficient technology and the handsets are now widely available in the market, he said, adding that it presents a better value proposition than wireless technologies.

Elena Liew, Gartner’s Asia-Pacific principal analyst, said: "The benefits of 3G over fixed [network] access is obviously mobility, but compared to a corporate leased line, the speed may seem inadequate. In such cases, 3G access might be used as a secondary access for mobile sales personnel.

“The biggest consideration for the company in offering 3G to their employees would be cost versus benefit,” she explained, noting that organizations should weigh the cost of the handsets and the recurring monthly operational fee against the gains in productivity.

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.