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March is crunch time for Mobile-Fi

IEEE meeting critical for 802.20 standard

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This week's IEEE meeting will be critical for the future of the proposed 802.20 Mobile-Fi standard for IP-based mobility. The group will elect a new chair, and the choice is widely expected to determine the speed of progress of the specification and its potential to develop alongside the increasingly overlapping mobile WiMAX, 802.16e.

Joe Barrett, vice president of marketing in the EMEA region for Flarion, one of the key supporters of 802.20, said: "The speed of progress of 802.20 depends on the voting for the new chair and who that person is backed by."

Political coup

Last time such an election was held, last June, the politics holding Mobile-Fi back became clear. At the June IEEE meeting, senior executives from Lucent and NTT DoCoMo became heads of the 802.20 Working Group, replacing executives from Flarion, Navini and smart antenna pioneer ArrayComm.

Navini claimed that the new chiefs, particularly NTT, had staged a "political coup" to wrest control from 4G technologists and ensure that 802.20 did not gain ground against either 3G or 802.16e. WiMAX presents a slightly lower threat to 3G than 802.20 because it is mobile within a metro area, rather than supporting hand-off at high speeds like Mobile-Fi.

According to Navini and its supporters, members of 802.16e and representatives from cellular companies attained voting rights and used them to install their own candidates and sabotage the process.

Such in-fighting and conspiracy theories abound in standards bodies, but they do hold back both technological progress and confidence in evolving standards. Barrett claims "the standards issue is not slowing us down," but agrees that "the industry wants to have a standard. The operators will decide how that plays out, if they have the money and the spectrum they have the power now".

Burst of confidence

Flarion's burst of confidence rests on its recently-announced trial with Nextel, and older pilots in South Korea. It says it is gaining ground with operators in other areas too, even Europe, where regulatory issues complicate the picture. Flarion will go to great lengths to make its Flash-OFDM technology appealing to the large operators. "We can work to be 3GPP compliant if the operators ask for it," said Barrett.

However, 802.16e is advancing more rapidly than 802.20 and with more aggressive backing from powerful companies like Intel and Nokia. Recently, Navini, which once shunned WiMAX, said it would support 'e' as well as Mobile-Fi and Nextel is trialling 802.16 as well as 802.20, and has made it clear it will only back technologies that have a clear route towards a standard.

All this makes the March meeting a pivotal one for 802.20 and for Flarion perhaps more than any other of the Mobile-Fi supporters. Its Flash-OFDM is more truly mobile than the implementations of Navini and other players like IPWireless, which gives it an advantage with cellular operators - but no place to run in the fixed wireless world, if it fails to demonstrate the convincing path to a standard that cellcos will demand.

© Copyright 2004 Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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