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Super 3G group flexes its muscles

DoCoMo takes on WiMAX

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NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone, the carriers that are most reliant on the survival of the GSM technologies into a fourth generation, have formed the Super 3G group to develop upgrades for W-CDMA.

Although its roadmap is vague and its work may well be redundant, given the number of other 4G developments, it shows DoCoMo seeking to drive future standards and see off the OFDM community. The Japanese, Korean and Chinese players have recently tended to band together to set an Asian-led agenda for 4G, but now Samsung is on the other side of the fence, positioning itself to drive the next iteration of mobile communications through its involvement in WiMAX, and showing a cold face to DoCoMo’s latest manoeuvres.

The start of the new year saw two important, and not unrelated, events in the world of next generation wireless networks. A group of companies spearheaded by Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo announced plans to develop ‘Super 3G’, while Korea’s Samsung finally joined the WiMAX Forum.

The reason these two events cannot be viewed in isolation is that they show the Asian-led move to create the fourth generation network being split down the middle. The two main movers and shakers to date in creating platforms for future 4G, DoCoMo and Samsung, are taking very different paths to achieving their aim of a new mobile generation that will be driven from the East, not the US and Europe. DoCoMo has to stay faithful to its W-CDMA roots and Super 3G shows it marshalling the forces of this market to stand against threats from WiMAX, while Samsung is embracing WiMAX as the most likely future basis of 4G, and seeking to take a dominant position in that community.

These two developments highlight several conflicts whose outcome will shape mobile communications in the second half of the decade. The Super 3G group, which also includes Vodafone and many large vendors, is technologically redundant, when set against the existing 4G development efforts (by individual vendors like Nokia and bodis like 3GPP), plus the emergence of broadband wireless. However, it is a clear signal from the dominant players in cellular networks that they aim to stop the development of 4G falling into the hands of factions with different agendas from their own – particularly the vendors that are backing WiMAX as the next generation network.

In that model, new operators will be able to enter premium mobile services with relative ease, and the focus – as in Wi-Fi – will be on the device rather than the network, threatening to reduce the cellcos to bit carriers. Both would seriously threaten the business assumptions on which large cellcos built their expensive plans for 3G and beyond.

The stakes are highest of all for DoCoMo, which has invested more than any other company in 4G and seeks to drive the global agenda. In the past, the Japanese giant merely aimed to launch new technologies ahead of the world, often in a ‘prestandard’ mode that was incompatible with other networks – most famously, its FOMA proprietary implementation of WCDMA 3G. Now, it recognizes, like Intel in the WiMAX camp, that it needs to work with its international rivals to influence global standards rather than staying in its own technological island.

The evolution of 4G

This will put new impetus behind the creation of 4G. Once slated for commercial deployment in the 2010-2015 timeframe, the project has remained very much confined to the laboratories and standards bodies, with very little consensus on what exactly a 4G network will comprise. There are basic definitions – 4G, according to the ITU and other industry forums, should be IPbased, run at 100Mbps while mobile and 1Gbps when fixed, support next generation applications such as high definition television to the handset, and span fixed and mobile communications.

But specifics on how this would be achieved have remained vague, and despite early stage demonstrations by DoCoMo and others, technological consensus has not been reached. Now that has to change, as WiMAX holds out the prospect of a globally harmonized, fixed and mobile network that could deliver 4G performance – as defined above - before the end of the decade. Already companies like Motorola and Siemens are demonstrating OFDM networks at close to 1Gbps, while others like Wi-Lan are showing off connections at high speed, up to 100 kilometers per hour.

Good news for users demanding applications such as mobile television or heavy duty corporate data exchange – neither really satisfied by 3G – since these facilities could be offered far earlier than expected, and at better prices. Good news for all those equipment makers and operators that have been excluded, by choice or market failure, from cashing in on cellular networks, but which now have a second bite at the mobile cherry.

Very bad news for operators – and for suppliers that are too heavily dependent on GSM or CDMA networks – who are stuck with a 3G technology that may have a shorter lifespan than expected. Not only will it be harder, if 4G standards are dominated by a different set of interests and technologies, to gain return on their huge investments in 3G, but they will not be able to exploit those technologies in moving to the next generation. Instead, they will be starting on a level playing field with the new entrants, but weighted down by a massive legacy burden.

Cellular sector bites back

The cellular community – led by uber-operators DoCoMo and Vodafone, and some key vendors – is fighting back aggressively, with Super 3G just the latest defensive position against the rise of a 4G based on WiMAX.

The lineup of its 27 initial supporters is telling. Here are many of the world’s largest cellcos, whose current dominance depends on the mass implementation of their 3G cellular networks – DoCoMo itself, Vodafone, US market leader Cingular Wireless and China Mobile lead the pack. All of these have shied away from broadband wireless or any next generation technology that would involve a difficult migration from 3G.

This is very much a group led by carriers, and mainly by WCDMA, although Qualcomm, the controller of the rival 3G standard CDMA2000, is also a member. One lesson learned must be that the two cellular communities must band together to create 4G, not risk another split, especially since WiMAX can now offer the promise of the world’s first globally unified mobile standard.

Samsung’s decisions

This enormously important claim has been largely possible because of the Korean vendors Samsung and LG Electronics. Samsung was the main force in developing the Korean Wi-Bro standard for OFDM-based broadband mobility, and argued that this should be the basis of the upcoming mobile version of WiMAX, 802.16e. Intel and others initially resisted such a move, threatening to create two rival networks, one for Asia and one for the west, but consensus was reached last fall, with Intel and LG agreeing to lead the effort to harmonize Wi-Bro and 802.16e, not only accelerating the standards process but holding out the prospect of a globally agreed standard.

The new friendship was sealed this week when Samsung officially joined the WiMAX Forum as a principal member. With its actions, the Korean giant, and to a lesser extent its compatriot LG, has positioned itself to take the role of a Nokia or a DoCoMo in mobile WiMAX, which it would argue will be the basis of 4G. Samsung and DoCoMo have been, for some years, the most vociferous movers behind 4G development, with extensive R&D programs and initiatives, such as Samsung’s annual 4G Vision Forum, to raise awareness and attract industry interest.

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