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WiMAX gets a handset, but no free ride for evolution

ITU holds timing and frequency to be different things

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The WiMAX camp should be celebrating the launch of the first WiMAX/GSM mobile phone, but instead the technology backers are under fire from the ITU for trying to paint a redesign as an evolution.

Russian WiMAX operator Scartel has launched a WiMAX handset from HTC that can also operate as a GSM phone, providing wireless broadband including music streaming and 14 TV channels on a 3.8 inch 800x480 screen. But those backing the WiMAX standard are still fighting to have the protocol respected as a proper ITU standard, and one that can evolve within the organisation.

WiMAX is a formally approved ITU standard, but only in its Time Division Duplexed form (TDD), where a single frequency switches between send and receive to provide connectivity. TDD is a perfectly respectable way of operating, but most mobile systems use Frequency Division Duplexing (FDD), where sender and receiver operate on different frequencies. WiMAX has an FDD variant, and wants that adopted as an evolution of the standard, but the French and German delegations to the ITU reckon the change makes for a different standard that will have to go through the formal acceptance process from the start.

To the WiMAX crowd that's patently unfair: W-CDMA (3G GSM) has been allowed to develop into LTE (Long Term Evolution) with a complete change of air-interface. But then LTE is backed by all the telecommunications companies that make up the ITU, so in some ways that's hardly surprising. Certainly the WiMAX crowd fear some conspiracy is afoot, and with legal cases blocking the sale of WiMAX-suitable spectrum in the UK and this strangely inane argument they may well have a point. But no such problems are restricting WiMAX in Russia.

Scartel, which runs its mobile WiMAX network under the "Yota" brand, doesn't have a GSM network. Customers can stick a GSM SIM in from any of the other local operators and the handset will automatically switch to GSM when there's no WiMAX signal available. When there is WiMAX Yota provides TV streams and the handset as a TV-out connection so the signal can be viewed on a proper screen, though operating at 2.6GHz means that penetration within buildings is far from certain.

A real handset should be a cause for celebration in the WiMAX camp, but with LTE expected to be ratified early next year the window of opportunity is closing fast - the competition only needs to delay WiMAX for a few more months. ®

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