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Enemies dig in for WiMAX-on-cell phone trench war

Can standards committee redeem its reputation?

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Column As the WiMax hype machine moves into high gear ahead of next month's 802.20 working group meeting in London, UK, workers on the various wireless standards are anxious to calm down negative reports about the problems they might have on making this family of wireless work in true mobile fashion.

One of the problems facing WiMax is that Intel - a major sponsor - wants to see it used on the move, at high speed in moving vehicles, not just in coffee shop hotspots. Unfortunately, the WiMax standard, 802.16d doesn't cover moving nodes, and the mobile version, 802.16e, has issues with rapid hand-off from cell to cell.

One possible solution to the hand-off problem is the 802.20 standard proposal. The credibility of that proposal has bene under something of a cloud, partly for technical reasons (many engineers remain sceptical about it) but mainly for political reasons.

The politics got so bad that at one point, the IEEE actually suspended the committee that was working on the standard.

Exactly what happened, is in dispute. The official IEEE magazine went on the record with a full analysis which makes ugly reading. However, the committee is now back in action, and due to meet in London - and is hoping to redeem its reputation.

Little of what has been written by outside commentators has pleased the members. For example, the IEEE magazine, The Institute, wrote:

The working group, IEEE 802.20, was formed in 2003 as an offshoot of the IEEE 802.16 standard activity, often referred to as WiMax, the technology enabling fixed wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL. The proposed IEEE 802.20 standard would do that but with a twist: it would support broadband wireless for laptop computers and other devices used in fast-moving vehicles such as cars and trains.

It turns out that this is one possible interpretation of events. Committee members find it misleading. They also feel aggrieved at the number of reports of the suspension of the committee and the excessive excitement over the sorry details of how, and why, the committee was suspended.

The sorry details are, indeed, simply summarised. To quote The Institute again:

Intel, Kyocera, Motorola, Qualcomm, and other giants with stakes in the market all had representatives on the new working group, which numbered roughly 175 people. Members of working groups are expected to vote as individuals and not represent their companies’ interests.

But charges flew from the very beginning that members’ votes were driven by company loyalties. A disputed 2003 election of officers for the group led to allegations that consultants who had failed to disclose their affiliations with major industry players had participated.

In the third quarter of 2005, individuals affiliated with Intel and others feared that the group’s decision to cut the technology submission phase from six months to one month would not allow them sufficient time to prepare their proposals. What’s more, when they tried to get the group to consider their proposals they were repeatedly voted down.

By last January, the working group had narrowed its deliberations to a joint proposal from Qualcomm and Kyocera that could become a competitor to IEEE 802.16e, in which several companies, including Intel, have a big stake. IEEE 802.16e, an amendment to 802.16, addresses mobility and calls for operation at just below 6 gigahertz, while 802.20 supports access at bands around 3.5 GHz.

Employees of Intel and Motorola on the working group filed appeals with the Standards Board, challenging the group’s procedures. Qualcomm officials in turn accused Intel of using procedural maneuvers to delay the adoption of the standard.

In short, politics, inevitable with such powerful corporations all seeking to control the new technology.

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