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

Can standards committee redeem its reputation?

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But behind the politics, there lurk some genuine technical issues. Prime is the question of cellular hand-off.

This is - according to the Committee itself - not a problem. David Brunnen Managing Director of ABFL Groupe Intellex picked up on a comment piece I wrote recently, suggesting that it was a problem; and Brunnen fiercely denied it, with evidence: "You may have picked up the story that the recent Mobi commercial launch in Beirut means that The Lebanon is now catching up fast – fully mobile IP access indoors and out and on the move," he told NewsWireless.

He continued: "The technology platform for this is the same 802.20 candidate as used commercially (not trials) in countries such as Australia, South Africa, and Norway and has already been standardised by ATIS/ANSI as HC-SDMA. Extensive trials are underway in many other countries."

The suspension of the committee was, of course, big news. Less exciting, it seems, was the IEEE's announcement of its resumption, or the appointment of a new committee chairman.

The committee takes the view that things are back on track, the technology has proved itself in the field, and the management of the standard is now whiter than white; so what's all the excitement about? It must be bad press.

We can expect more along these lines in two weeks, when the committee meets in London, and committee members have promised to clarify matters. But the idea that this is all down to press hostility is unlikely to hold water. As an IEEE member put it, off the record: "Any technical issue which involves Qualcomm is going to generate controversy."

Qualcomm's problem with the rest of the world is very simple. It owns - and does not share - a lot of technical patent assets.

In the wireless world, the normal way of managing intellectual property is that it gets traded. You have 20 patents, and I have 25 and Motorola has 40 and Intel has 50; and we all share them, and no money changes hands. Sometimes, the deal is quite simple. Other times it's the basis of a cartel, as with the GSM patents.

The exception is when Qualcomm is involved. It has a general rule (say its rivals) of hiring as many lawyers as technologists; it will let you use its IP, but only on a strict royalty basis. And the amount it charges is seen as prohibitive - to the point that the GSM spec was drawn up almost entirely with the objective of avoiding any technology owned by Qualcomm.

The result is that if standards bodies find themselves faced with the choice of developing a new technology, or buying something from Qualcomm, they will go to a lot of trouble to avoid the big Q option. That trouble will include glossing over quite serious problems with the alternative, say engineers.

For example, there's a press release, jointly issued by Korea's mobile operator, SK Telecom and Interdigital, relating to WiBro.

WiBro is closely related to WiMAX. Exactly how close you think it is, seems to depend on which giant electronic IP-owning corporation you work for. But, as the press release shows, it shares one technical feature with WiMax: it hasn't yet solved the cellular hand-off problem.

To quote my anonymous IEEE engineer: "I'm sure Moore's Law will make this problem manageable in some future time-scale, but right now, it's a serious issue because of the amount of processing power it takes to keep track of two cellular transmitters as you cross from one to the next."

Strangely, the problems are worse for data than for voice. You might imagine that a real-time stream like a voice call, which has to be synchronised accurately, would be more demanding; apparently, this isn't the case, for a number of reasons. Amongst them: a voice stream is very little data; it is buffered heavily, and there's a latency built into it to cope with interruptions. By comparison, a data stream tends to be required for high-data-rate applications, where we're looking at megabits per second (voice is happy with ten kilobits) and re-transmissions are to be avoided.

The 802.20 committee seems content with its progress on this technology issue. The WiBro authorities seem equally relaxed about how much work needs to be done. And the standard WiMax gang (the Intel lobby, at any rate) is staunchly optimistic that 802.16e is on target, and will Work As Designed within the expected time-scale.

Ultimately, all these problems are likely to be solved simply by the power of the typical processor chip shipping in the 2015 time frame. But sceptics say that the market may not wait that long.

The question that isn't easy to answer is this: "What problem are we trying to solve?"

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