Telecom operator 2.0: Can we set up an alternative mobile network using Wi-Fi and/or Wimax?

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Introduction

Many of us work with Mobile network operators and find that a frustrating experience (and that includes many people who work for Operators!). Secretly, we think that we could do a better job! Could we perhaps set up an alternative wireless network? The two most likely technologies that can achieve this goal are Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

Is this a pipe (no pun intended) dream? Can it be done?

We are considering two questions here:

a) Can alternative technologies like Wi-Fi and WiMAX be used to set up a functionally analogous mobile network operator? And

b) How disruptive can such an operation be? Who would it benefit?

Before we start: many of us, including me in this article, are guilty of combining ‘Wi-Fi’ and ‘WiMAX’ in the same argument. Other than similar sounding names, they are really quite different. Indeed, as we shall see below, WiMAX has more in common with 3G (i.e. cellular) and broadband than it does with Wi-Fi.

So, our roadmap for this article will be:

a) The evolution of Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi grid networks and the possibility of using Wi-Fi grid networks as an operator

b) The potential of WiMAX technology to provide an alternate wireless network

But, to really understand this issue, we have to consider the question:

1) ‘What is ‘mobile’? and a secondary question:

2) ‘What do we mean by a ‘functionally analogous’ mobile network operator?’

When we refer to mobility, we referring to ‘anywhere/anytime’ access to the service.

The caveats to this definition are:

a) A reasonable quality of service is expected.

b) The lack of quality of service could lead to a ‘good enough’ solution.

c) A good enough solution, if it is cheap, could actually be a preferred solution in comparison to a complex, expensive, non interoperable solution

d) In some cases, ‘anywhere / anytime’ could equal ‘sometimes’. Specifically, ‘sometimes’ equates to proximity to a hotspot.

Thus, the requirement is really a trade-off between quality, coverage, cost etc.

Another way to put this is: 3G and Wi-Fi don’t compete at one level because 3G is a cellular technology (in theory, available any time) and Wi-Fi works only around a hotspot. But, a ‘Wi-Fi Blackberry’ is already here!. The customer will spend their dollars at only one place. So, at a dollar level, they compete. This comparison will be played out on a much larger scale soon with the introduction of WiMAX. In the end, the customer will decide the scenario that will succeed.

With this background, let us consider the two scenarios: namely Wi-Fi mesh networks and WiMAX

Wi-Fi mesh networks

Wi-Fi or Wireless LANs is a term which refers to a set of products that are based on the IEEE 802.11 specifications. The most popular and widely used Wireless LAN standard at the moment is 802.11b, which operates in the 2.4GHz spectrum along with cordless phones, microwave ovens and Bluetooth. Wi-Fi enabled computers or PDA (personal digital assistants) can connect to the Internet when in the proximity of an access point popularly called a ‘hotspot’. The Wi-Fi alliance is responsible for governing and standardising Wi-Fi technology.

Due to the (runaway) success of Wi-Fi, the industry has always looked for ways to extend the role of Wi-Fi beyond simple localised access. Most people are familiar with the ‘Basic’ configuration of a Wi-Fi network. In this case, the Wi-Fi access point is directly connected to a network and provides wireless access around a 100m radius around the access point. The basic configuration is not scaleable. An alternative configuration is called a ‘Wi-Fi mesh’ configuration. In a Wi-Fi mesh configuration, only one access point needs to be connected to a physical network. Each access point in a mesh network supports two connection modes: A client connection, through which it communicates with a client which wants to connect to the network and a backbone connection, which it uses to connect to the client in the network which is connected to the physical network

Thus, Wi-Fi mesh technology offers a way to achieve, in principle, coverage around the whole metropolitan area.

WiMAX

WiMAX stands for wireless interoperability for Microwave access and is defined by IEEE 802.16 standards. It is promoted and standardised by the WiMAX forum . The confusion around WiMAX arises because there are two versions of WiMAX: fixed location WiMAX and Mobile WiMAX

The original specification of WiMAX was for the fixed location WiMAX (IEEE 802.16-2004). Fixed location WiMAX is mainly used to provide wireless broadband connectivity. It may be ideally suited in many rural areas but also in some urban areas where installation of physical connections is expensive.

Mobile WiMAX (specified in 802.16e-2005), on the other hand, evolved much later (and in fact, is still evolving). In contrast, fixed location WiMAX is relatively mature with the first products hitting the marketplace already. Unlike fixed location WiMAX, Mobile WiMAX competes with cellular services. Mobile WiMAX relates to ‘handoff’ i.e. a customer can move from one base station to another and yet maintain their network connection. As you can gather, Mobile WiMAX competes with both 3G cellular services and also with the Wi-Fi mesh networks.

Currently, much of the WiMAX activity is around fixed location WiMAX (for instance clearwire recently got a close to a billion dollars of funding! ). And much of the hype is around Mobile WiMAX. In between these two modes, there is the nomadic WiMAX mode. Nomadic WiMAX means you have coverage within the area but not handoff (so the connection drops when you go outside the coverage area). Considering the relatively wide coverage area, this may not be so bad.

Spectrum issues

Spectrum issues will affect the actual possibilities and rollout timeframes of these technologies. They differ from country to country. Wi-Fi operates in the unlicensed spectrum with 802.11b in the 2.4 GHz and 802.11a in the 5Ghz. WiMAX on the other hand can operate in either licensed or unlicensed frequencies from 2 GHz to 66 GHz. The original versions of WiMAX operated in the 10-66Ghz range but needed ‘line of sight’ access between the base station and the client. Obviously, this was very restrictive. Subsequent WiMAX standards are designed to operate in the lower frequencies (2 GHz to 6 GHz). At these frequencies, line of sight is not required.

Observations

a) Many people consider Wi-Fi, as it stands today, to be disruptive. Certainly, it is. However, the future appears far more disruptive especially when we consider WiMAX and Wi-Fi mesh technologies.

b) Simple always wins; every time

c) The industry uses popular technologies in ways that were not originally envisaged (PLSQL instead of SQL, Ajax frameworks and Wi-Fi mesh networks are all examples of this trend.)

d) A good enough solution may be the winner rather than a complex, difficult and expensive solution

Conclusions

We started off with the two questions:

a) Can alternative technologies like Wi-Fi and WiMAX be used to set up a functionally analogous mobile network operator? And

b) How disruptive can such an operation be? Who would it benefit?

The answer is: It depends. Depends on what you call a ‘mobile network’. More specifically, depending on what customers call a mobile network. Where will customers see value?

As we have seen above, will customers accept tradeoffs between handoff, QOS, Cost and coverage?

Commercially, it also comes down to spectrum issues. Who develops the spectrum and what services do they provide? One thing is for sure: setting up a Wi-Fi mesh network or a WiMAX network is a non trivial exercise. The companies who are likely to succeed in this task are the ones which are very well funded. They are also likely to be non-incumbents.

In my view, the winner will be the customer and the customer will define and decide what exactly they mean by a mobile network and whether it will succeed.

References

a) WiMAX and the Metro wireless market: WiMAX vs. Wi-Fi and 3G

Michael F. Finneran dBrn Associates, Inc. 189 Curtis Road Woodmere, NY 11598

Tel. (516) 569-4557 Mobile (516) 410-5217 mfinneran@att.net

b) WiMAX: Opportunity or Hype?

Michael Richardson

Patrick Ryan

University of Colorado at Boulder

Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program

Comments

  1. tony fish says:

    Ajit
    Good debate to start. My observations and comments to create furhter debate
    1. It depends on what is already there. In countries with strong copper local loop, Cable, Satellite, 2/2.5/3G, and WiFi Wimax does not have a strong story. Therefore focus on developing markets
    2. Spectrum – to offer QoS you need ownership/ rights to spectrum. To gain EoS you need similar spectrum in many counties. This is somewhat difficult and will hinder take up in price sensitive developing markets
    3. Users really don’t care about acess layers
    4.Intel is keen to get a foot hold in mobile, Wimax is their solution. However, Qualcomm and TI will protect their installed solutions
    5. Handsets are key, so is the network. Classic chicken and egg. Who will commit first. It will not be the handsets.
    Looking forward to the debate

  2. Rajan says:

    Hi Ajit,
    You might wanna take a look at Fon, which is trying to build a global wifi network through the help of a community.
    http://www.fon.com
    Rajan

  3. Rico says:

    Established companies will indeed move to protect their infrastructure investments, which is reasonable behavior. But I wonder if their actions will be bad for their respective domains. Once developing markets gain widespread coverage through a wireless network, it’s possible for them to surpass the connnectivity of developed areas.

  4. shabana says:

    hi,
    i want to setup a wimax to transmit the data from laptop to mobile phone.
    would anyone guide me how to achieve this.
    regards
    shabana