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Ericsson deals blow to unified 4G dream

Pulls out of WiMAX

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Comment Ericsson was never going to welcome WiMAX, given its potential cannibalisation of the Swedish giant's strongest market, UMTS/HSPA, but it was mellowing towards the technology last year as it sought to diversify its customer base and be less dependent on cellcos, moving towards multi-network convergence and managed services for its growth.

However, now it has cancelled its WiMAX R&D projects and says it will focus on bringing LTE to market as early as possible - to satisfy operator calls for a more rapid agenda, and to ensure WiMAX cannot leap into a vacuum left by a long wait for 3.9G.

Since LTE and WiMAX are very similar in technology fundamentals, Ericsson could well afford to support R&D on both and create a converged, all-bases-covered development like Motorola's and Nortel's. So its public rejection of 802.16 smacks of politics and spin, seeking to reduce operator confidence, while raising their hopes of near term LTE, and wrongfoot WiMAX enthusiasts like Motorola.

Ericsson will certainly have huge influence over its core UMTS cellco market, but its stand comes too late to win many other vendors to its side. Moto and Nortel are highly committed to WiMAX, having failed in UMTS; Samsung needs it to support its claim to swing the IPR balance of power eastwards; Nokia, while UMTS is more important to its infrastructure business than WiMAX, is more interested in multi-network devices and driving new markets for high end handsets.

With Alcatel-Lucent generally technologically agnostic, Ericsson is making a firm stand on dominating HSPA and LTE, and keeping its traditional 3G cellco base solid behind its technologies, but it is risking being pigeon holed as a onesystem giant, at a time when it is seeking to expand its range into wireline convergence, IPTV and managed services.

The pre-4G networks are evolving on such similar paths that they will be distinguished by brand and politics, rather than core technologies. But those differences may still be just as divisive and deeply ingrained as though the various factions - WiMAX, LTE and Qualcomm's Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) - had chosen entirely different physical designs.

Against this backdrop, the WiMAX community is necessarily on the defensive because its technology lacks the advantage of a heritage in an installed base like UMTS or GSM. So Motorola and Nortel, the companies that failed to get rich on UMTS, are keen to stress the convergence potential between WiMAX and LTE - they say the R&D overlap could be over 85 per cent; while those with most to lose by having a viable alternative to the HSPA/LTE route - Nokia and Ericsson - have been more inclined to stress the differences, and the lack of backwards integration.

So, arguably, Nokia's decision to commit serious resource to WiMAX, at least on the handset side, was the greatest credibility boost for 802.16, more important than the almost inevitable, if powerful, support from Intel's IP-oriented world and the 3G also-rans. And this makes Ericsson's decision publicly to reject the WiMAX system a blow to the idea of a converged next generation roadmap leading naturally to 4G. It is hardly surprising that the Swedish giant - dominant in UMTS and GSM, leading the market in commercializing the latest iterations of HSDPA should seek to wipe any challenger off the wireless map.

But it is still a blow - last year, it seemed that Ericsson was mellowing towards WiMAX, not exactly putting it at the heart of its strategy, but at least acknowledging it could have a place in major integration and services projects in future. Now it is very blatantly voicing the view that WiMAX is irrelevant to large operators - a tool for a few challenging ISPs with limited spectrum and a possible DSL extension network for rural areas, (a market where Ericsson will continue to sell 802.16 systems, which it badges from Airspan).

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