WiMAX – aviation’s preferred choice
In a refreshingly candid discussion on the technology’s future, president of the WiMAX Forum, Declan Byrne speaks to Tim Guest
Recent reports may have left some with the impression that WiMAX has had its day and will soon be usurped, in its entirety, by LTE, the new kid on the block with all its promises for high speeds and reliability. But such impressions would probably be wrong, considering its multitude of industrial applications, which will ensure the technology is with us for a long time to come.
WiMAX: its beginnings…and prospects
Based around IEEE 802.16 standards, WiMAX has offered fixed or wireless broadband connectivity suited to delivering service across individual cities or much larger geographical regions and countries for the past seven or so years. As well as its mobile broadband capabilities for people on the move, it has offered a last-mile alternative for fixed broadband as an alternative to cable and DSL to provide triple-play data, telecoms and IPTV services, as well as Internet connectivity and machine-to-machine (M2M) support of smart grids and metering solutions.
WiMAX was one of the first technologies to call itself a ‘4G’ technology back in 2006 when Sprint in the US made the announcement that it was adopting it to support the ever increasing demands for broadband connectivity by consumers and businesses. But it was not until 2008 that Sprint finally rolled out its Mobile WiMAX solutions in the first cities around the US, where less than 30 were covered by the start of 2010 with WiMAX delivering services to just 30 million people –a slow start by any standards by the operator and one which could be seen as ‘missing the proverbial boat’ for a technology, which had all the right ingredients to set the world on fire.
Added to that has been the relatively poor showing of WiMAX in the rest of the world where there has been some, though limited, take-up in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Far East, but with the rest of Europe showing little or no interest at all.
Considering it’s a technology, which, on a good day, should be at least twice as fast as 3G, WiMAX could well have made greater inroads than it has. But there is, arguably, still life in existing WiMAX networks and a future for the technology, as a whole, even though we’ve now moved into a new mobile era where LTE, with its high speeds and bandwidth, is drawing down on WiMAX and, perhaps, sculpting its future existence. Indeed, today’s US landscape – the bastion of WiMAX previously - sees MetroPCS having launched the first LTE network in 2010, Sprint upgrading its WiMAX deployments to LTE since last year, and AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all indicating LTE is for them – proof, if any were needed, that this is the way things are going. But WiMAX 4G is still a key factor in the US broadband market. It’s commercially available from Clearwire and Sprint at a time when LTE is not, and offers a service choice to their six-seven million customers in some 15 US states that can deliver 6Mbps download speeds and 1Mbps upload speeds at this time - and it’s already supported by a number of suitable WiMAX devices available on the market.
From the horse’s mouth
The WiMAX Forum™ was founded in 2001 by equipment and component suppliers within the sector who formed the organisation in order to support the IEEE 802.16 BWA system with the aim of testing and certifying the interoperability of equipment from the various manufacturers within the sector. Ensuring the harmonisation of standards for the industry was also very much on its list of priorities.
But at a time when WiMAX has turned a corner and finds itself facing a not-so-certain future, it actually looks like there is a massive future role for this mature and capable technology to play in a wide range of applications and markets, many of which are already in place or being earmarked and set in motion. So, at this crucial and rapidly evolving time for the industry, president of the WiMAX Forum, Declan Byrne, gave Land Mobile his latest perspective on where WiMAX is headed.
Land Mobile: WiMAX has been around for some years but with the advent of LTE it seems the landscape is changing. How will WiMAX’s role play out in the coming years?
Declan Byrne: The WiMAX industry celebrates its 13th birthday in 2014 and much has changed as the technology, ecosystem, and application-set have matured and evolved. The technology has faced unanticipated headwinds in the traditional service provider mobile broadband wireless segment and it now appears clear that take-up of the technology, with certain (and limited) emerging market exceptions, has reached a zenith. WiMAX operator networks now cover over one billion people and there are approximately 35 million consumer users of WiMAX technology across the planet. We expect this number of users to start declining beginning in 2013. The WiMAX Forum, in response to this trend, and as an effort to support its operator membership and the suppliers which service them, has introduced a transition technology, called WiMAX Advanced, which serves as a commercial and technical bridge to TD-LTE technology. We are witnessing some early transitioning to TD-LTE already, and expect by 2016 that most of our operator members will have commenced transitioning away from WiMAX to TD-LTE.
So, I see another two-four years of life in WiMAX as a solution for carriers and broadband service providers as consumers wait for TD-LTE. In Japan, for example, the operator UQ Communications is continuing to grow and provides nationwide WiMAX service with 4.3 million customers and they are winning utility business along with all sorts of other business. But my growing base is what I’d call ‘highly emerging markets’ such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran and two out of those three are on 3.5GHz – the Pakistanis and the Iranians – and even if they wanted to move to LTE they couldn’t. There’s no solution for them at this time.
The other markets that are important for us are traditional service providers in Japan, Korea and then Africa. There are around 50 or more WiMAX networks across Africa, some of them of considerable scale. Swift in Nigeria, for example, has between 200,00-300,000 subscribers and Busy Internet in Ghana has 80,000-90,000, and for these economies to have so many mobile and broadband Internet users is quite a success. But generally it is not a consumer model. In places like Harare (Zimbabwe) or Gaborone (Botswana), to get a licence you go in and install 30-50 WiMAX towers and deliver a small business service to players like CitiBank or the embassies, where they have no other data option. Such customers will pay hundreds of dollars a month for a decent 512kb connection, which is viable. So that’s principally the model in Africa where it’s a 2.5-3.5GHz environment. There are no LTE solutions in those bands yet, certainly not at a price point that works if you are an African or Pakistani operator.
LM: Will enterprise applications for WiMAX play a more important role in the technology’s future?
DB: In parallel to the trend away from mobile broadband consumer applications, we are witnessing a profound sea-change in the application sets for which WiMAX has been thought apt. It is being broadly understood that WiMAX, although losing strength as a solution for mobile broadband wireless consumers, has particular aptitude as a private networking industrial solution. Users of the technology include oil and gas companies, utilities and the aviation sector, to name but a few. We are seeing an explosion of interest for WiMAX among these market segments for quite obvious reasons:
- These industrial users are very conservative and tend to select very stable and mature technologies, which have benefited from several design and cost-curve enhancements.
- The radio spectrum available to industrial users is quite limited – and it turns out that the frequencies which ARE available to these market segments are NOT frequencies which TD-LTE and other technologies are likely to design into.
- The IEEE genesis of WiMAX technology (IEEE 802.16) is a more natural technology fit for the information technology managers of industrial networks, as opposed to TD-LTE (3GPP), which is optimised for the delivery of mobile voice.
As a consequence of these trends, the ecosystem of users and suppliers in the WiMAX industry is undergoing tremendous change. Now we have GE, Hitachi, Siemens, Cisco, Rockwell Collins, and Honeywell as the new standard bearers of the technology and its commercial future. We are seeing this shift in the makeup of the WiMAX Forum Board of Directors, as well as with Hitachi and GE deciding to take directorships within the past 18 months. Announcements of large deployments in the utility (smart grid) space by significantly-sized utilities are a regular occurrence (Kyushu Electric Power (Japan) with seven million metres with WiMAX-embedded silicon, SpAusnet (Victoria, Australia) with 850,000 metres with WiMAX-embedded silicon, Centerpoint Energy (US) with 3.2 million metres backhauled via WiMAX) and a growing phenomenon. This trend will continue.
LM: How do WiMAX and Wi-Fi co-exist in today’s wireless environment?
DB: WiFi and WiMAX are perfectly complementary, actually. Indeed in September I was invited to speak at the WiFi Global Congress in London in an explicit recognition of this. WiFi is becoming the truly ubiquitous technology, which, we believe, will actually be the predominant method for access and global roaming in the future. WiFi is, without a doubt, the most successful telecom standard ever developed. WiMAX (and indeed LTE) complement vast WiFi networks as the backhaul for WiFi access.
LM: How is technology shared and protected amongst your members?
DB: WiMAX, as an IEEE Internet technology, has always striven for open standards and a free and fair and level playing field in terms of Intellectual Property. We actually require that technology contributors to the Standard and associated Necessary Specifications contractually agree to make Intellectual Property available to all users on fair and reasonable terms. This is in stark contrast, we believe, to the experience of technology innovators within the 3GPP standards development organizations. We have seen a massive growth in Intellectual Property litigation recently with respect to 3G and 4G (3GPP) technologies – I believe we are seeing just the beginning of these expensive and distracting lawsuits. WiMAX technology has completely avoided this trend.
LM: What are some of the continuing challenges you and your members face?
DB: One problem is raising money for WiMAX. Investors, in the main, don’t really have a clue about technology, whether TD-LTE or WiMAX – because if they did they would understand that WiMAX is a great solution. If you are a Pakistani operator or in Afghanistan or Africa or Laos, what they do is read the headlines and see that Sprint and China Mobile are going the LTE route and their investors then ask ‘Why am I investing in WiMax? Everyone’s talking about LTE?’ The Pakistani operator then says ‘But there is no LTE in my band yet’, and the board says, ‘OK, but I’m still not going to invest in WiMAX as it’s a dead technology’. It’s a challenge. And this is even though there are plenty of years of market share for WiMAX and the infrastructure guys are offering dual-mode equipment to support inevitable change. So I spend time talking to the boards of WiMAX companies and give them the real deal – ‘WiMAX has reached its zenith and it will tail off in terms of service provider subscribers BUT in your market and your frequency it will be a couple more years before you have a product to use on LTE. So, in the meantime, what’s the risk if you have dual-mode infrastructure and prices? Isn’t it worth continuing to grow your network? And that generally resonates with them.
LM: What is the most significant development for WiMAX at this crucial time?
DB: The largest and most significant new market segment, which has exclusively adopted WiMAX technology, is aviation, where it will be used for the purpose of surface communications at airports. This new application requirement is called AeroMACS. In 2007, at an International Civil Aviation Organization conference in Montreal, this community elected WiMAX technology as its standard technology solution for all surface communications at every airport in the world. This decision was followed by the allocation at the 2007 World Radio Spectrum Conference in Geneva of 50MHz at 5GHz for the exclusive use of Air Traffic Control and Airport Operations Centres (ATC and AOC respectively). This market is estimated to require between 50,000 and 100,000 radio base station sectors and approximately five million devices. The deployment timeline (while having already begun in several trials in the US, Asia and Europe) will really begin in earnest in late 2014 and continue for 10-20 years. The WiMAX Forum, as the organiser of this ecosystem, just held an inaugural aviation summit in Washington, DC and over 100 participants from more than 40 companies from across the world participated.
This sector is a juggernaut; the aviation industry is a 20-30-year deployment paradigm and it’s begun already with trials in San Francisco (US), Madrid (Spain) and Toulouse (France). The money available in that sector is huge. Airbus and Thales have been running WiMAX trials for the last three years called SESAR, a European Commission-funded trial, which has so far cost over USD36million – and it’s just a trial! They’ve equipped an A320 and put some base stations around an airport for evaluation – but this amount of money is small beer for the aviation community. The head of the Air Navigation Bureau, Nancy Graham recently said, and she was very clear on this, that ‘any airport of any size – mid-size and above - in the world, will have WiMAX infrastructure for all surface communications beginning in 2014’. They want commercial deployments in some scale by 2017 and this will continue for the next 10-20 years.
This whole picture is actually an argument I use with operators who are concerned about continuing along the WiMAX path, that the opportunities in the utility and aviation sectors are underscoring the need for continuing WIMAX development and shows a strong future. Times change and responsive organisations must respond to those changes. We are committed to helping the operator industry move to different access technologies according to a technical and commercial timeline, which makes most sense for them. We are equally committed, as ‘ecosystem managers’, to bring the benefits of WiMAX technology to industrial markets, which are requiring secure, stable and robust technologies to most efficiently and safely deliver services.