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Super 3G group flexes its muscles

DoCoMo takes on WiMAX

By Wireless Watch, 10 Jan 2005

NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone, the carriers that are most reliant on the survival of the GSM technologies into a fourth generation, have formed the Super 3G group to develop upgrades for W-CDMA.

Although its roadmap is vague and its work may well be redundant, given the number of other 4G developments, it shows DoCoMo seeking to drive future standards and see off the OFDM community. The Japanese, Korean and Chinese players have recently tended to band together to set an Asian-led agenda for 4G, but now Samsung is on the other side of the fence, positioning itself to drive the next iteration of mobile communications through its involvement in WiMAX, and showing a cold face to DoCoMo’s latest manoeuvres.

The start of the new year saw two important, and not unrelated, events in the world of next generation wireless networks. A group of companies spearheaded by Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo announced plans to develop ‘Super 3G’, while Korea’s Samsung finally joined the WiMAX Forum.

The reason these two events cannot be viewed in isolation is that they show the Asian-led move to create the fourth generation network being split down the middle. The two main movers and shakers to date in creating platforms for future 4G, DoCoMo and Samsung, are taking very different paths to achieving their aim of a new mobile generation that will be driven from the East, not the US and Europe. DoCoMo has to stay faithful to its W-CDMA roots and Super 3G shows it marshalling the forces of this market to stand against threats from WiMAX, while Samsung is embracing WiMAX as the most likely future basis of 4G, and seeking to take a dominant position in that community.

These two developments highlight several conflicts whose outcome will shape mobile communications in the second half of the decade. The Super 3G group, which also includes Vodafone and many large vendors, is technologically redundant, when set against the existing 4G development efforts (by individual vendors like Nokia and bodis like 3GPP), plus the emergence of broadband wireless. However, it is a clear signal from the dominant players in cellular networks that they aim to stop the development of 4G falling into the hands of factions with different agendas from their own – particularly the vendors that are backing WiMAX as the next generation network.

In that model, new operators will be able to enter premium mobile services with relative ease, and the focus – as in Wi-Fi – will be on the device rather than the network, threatening to reduce the cellcos to bit carriers. Both would seriously threaten the business assumptions on which large cellcos built their expensive plans for 3G and beyond.

The stakes are highest of all for DoCoMo, which has invested more than any other company in 4G and seeks to drive the global agenda. In the past, the Japanese giant merely aimed to launch new technologies ahead of the world, often in a ‘prestandard’ mode that was incompatible with other networks – most famously, its FOMA proprietary implementation of WCDMA 3G. Now, it recognizes, like Intel in the WiMAX camp, that it needs to work with its international rivals to influence global standards rather than staying in its own technological island.

The evolution of 4G

This will put new impetus behind the creation of 4G. Once slated for commercial deployment in the 2010-2015 timeframe, the project has remained very much confined to the laboratories and standards bodies, with very little consensus on what exactly a 4G network will comprise. There are basic definitions – 4G, according to the ITU and other industry forums, should be IPbased, run at 100Mbps while mobile and 1Gbps when fixed, support next generation applications such as high definition television to the handset, and span fixed and mobile communications.

But specifics on how this would be achieved have remained vague, and despite early stage demonstrations by DoCoMo and others, technological consensus has not been reached. Now that has to change, as WiMAX holds out the prospect of a globally harmonized, fixed and mobile network that could deliver 4G performance – as defined above - before the end of the decade. Already companies like Motorola and Siemens are demonstrating OFDM networks at close to 1Gbps, while others like Wi-Lan are showing off connections at high speed, up to 100 kilometers per hour.

Good news for users demanding applications such as mobile television or heavy duty corporate data exchange – neither really satisfied by 3G – since these facilities could be offered far earlier than expected, and at better prices. Good news for all those equipment makers and operators that have been excluded, by choice or market failure, from cashing in on cellular networks, but which now have a second bite at the mobile cherry.

Very bad news for operators – and for suppliers that are too heavily dependent on GSM or CDMA networks – who are stuck with a 3G technology that may have a shorter lifespan than expected. Not only will it be harder, if 4G standards are dominated by a different set of interests and technologies, to gain return on their huge investments in 3G, but they will not be able to exploit those technologies in moving to the next generation. Instead, they will be starting on a level playing field with the new entrants, but weighted down by a massive legacy burden.

Cellular sector bites back

The cellular community – led by uber-operators DoCoMo and Vodafone, and some key vendors – is fighting back aggressively, with Super 3G just the latest defensive position against the rise of a 4G based on WiMAX.

The lineup of its 27 initial supporters is telling. Here are many of the world’s largest cellcos, whose current dominance depends on the mass implementation of their 3G cellular networks – DoCoMo itself, Vodafone, US market leader Cingular Wireless and China Mobile lead the pack. All of these have shied away from broadband wireless or any next generation technology that would involve a difficult migration from 3G.

This is very much a group led by carriers, and mainly by WCDMA, although Qualcomm, the controller of the rival 3G standard CDMA2000, is also a member. One lesson learned must be that the two cellular communities must band together to create 4G, not risk another split, especially since WiMAX can now offer the promise of the world’s first globally unified mobile standard.

Samsung’s decisions

This enormously important claim has been largely possible because of the Korean vendors Samsung and LG Electronics. Samsung was the main force in developing the Korean Wi-Bro standard for OFDM-based broadband mobility, and argued that this should be the basis of the upcoming mobile version of WiMAX, 802.16e. Intel and others initially resisted such a move, threatening to create two rival networks, one for Asia and one for the west, but consensus was reached last fall, with Intel and LG agreeing to lead the effort to harmonize Wi-Bro and 802.16e, not only accelerating the standards process but holding out the prospect of a globally agreed standard.

The new friendship was sealed this week when Samsung officially joined the WiMAX Forum as a principal member. With its actions, the Korean giant, and to a lesser extent its compatriot LG, has positioned itself to take the role of a Nokia or a DoCoMo in mobile WiMAX, which it would argue will be the basis of 4G. Samsung and DoCoMo have been, for some years, the most vociferous movers behind 4G development, with extensive R&D programs and initiatives, such as Samsung’s annual 4G Vision Forum, to raise awareness and attract industry interest.

Asian-driven 4G

Their aggression has not just been about commercial leadership but about swinging the balance of power in the mobile industry towards Asia, reducing the power of the European and US companies in this critical sector. Japan and Korea have the most advanced deployments of mobile and broadband networks in the world, and their corporations aim to take advantage of this to set the global technology agenda, increase their own influence and revenues, and reduce the burden of royalties to western suppliers such as Qualcomm. In this, they have the important backing of China, whose suppliers are less technologically advanced, but which is keen to ally with Japan and Korea and use the weight of its market size to gain bargaining power for the region.

Now, however, the collaboration of China, Japan and Korea to drive 4G is fragmenting somewhat. The main parties involved agree on the principle of an Asian-driven next generation, but disagree on the technologies involved. Samsung and LG see WiMAX as a technology that, thanks to the Wi-Bro compromise, they are now in a position to dominate, and which could deliver real world 4G before 2010. Samsung holds hundreds of patents related to 4G and says 100 of its patents are incorporated in 3G and 4G standards. That number will rise significantly because of Wi-Bro.

Reactions to Super 3G

DoCoMo, excluded from this party, has to pursue a different technological route, hence the creation of the Super 3G group. On announcement of the Super 3G group, Samsung dismissed it as “just a DoCoMo event”, claiming the Japanese company was trying, once again, to work outside the industry standards process. The efforts of the various technology groups should be pooled to create 4G, not allowed to fragment the standard, it argued. "Super 3G plan seems to be a part of NTT DoCoMo’s global strategy. The companies involved in Super 3G project did nothing but declaring their intention of starting something, so we don’t take it seriously,” said a spokesperson to the Telecom Korea publication.

LG Electronics said: "Considering DoCoMo has always been the first to develop new technologies but failed in expanding market share due to staying away from global trend of standardization, Super 3G is a part of its efforts to dominate the 4G market by drawing attention to a similar project while 4G standardization is under way.”

Most vendors, of course, will keep a watching brief on both initiatives. DoCoMo’s friends, such as NEC, are of course in the new body, but so are Alcatel, Siemens, Lucent and Motorola, all companies with interest in WiMAX but with a need to follow any technology that could be demanded by their key customers in future. Even Samsung itself is said to be joining, alongside Qualcomm. This is not unusual behavior – Samsung’s usual policy is to support any potential standard and see what the market demands.

However, the presence of these two CDMA giants does not indicate genuine support, but a need to keep a toehold in a fundamentally hostile camp, one that aims to preserve the W-CDMA heritage. Such moves are likely to drive Qualcomm and the CDMA sector even more rapidly towards creating a migration path for CDMA2000 that will move smoothly to WiMAX or other OFDM technologies. Qualcomm has shifted in this direction already with its OFDM-based FLO platform and has started filing patents enthusiastically in this area.

We expect current CDMA operators to gain a far smoother path to ‘4G’ than their W-CDMA rivals. Qualcomm and other key CDMA suppliers are more focused on integrating with, and eventually migrating to, OFDM than the GSM world, and are focusing on a technology that is already highly developed. Hybrid mobile networks will be a possibility from 2007 and a true 4G system will be viable before the end of the decade. By contrast, WCDMA operators face being pushed by the decisions of the heavyweights among them - which cannot be ignored by the vendors – down a route to a shiny new 4G technology.

While this may have more in common with W-CDMA and so offer a smoother technological upgrade once it arrives, it is likely to take many years to evolve, and will be held back by conflicts with other developments, including WiMAX and other 4G projects, all of which will cause confusion and will dilute the R&D resources of the supplier community. There is already a strong feeling that W-CDMA operators may be stuck with an inferior technology. Clinging to it and taking on the expense and risk of a whole new standards path could be suicidal, as the CDMA carriers, and a huge group of new entrants to mobility, leap on to a technology that, for all its faults, is just around the corner.

Additional background: NTT DoCoMo’s technology

The Super 3G members claim they will have specifications, based on the current WCDMA technology, by mid-2007 and working systems by 2009. Technologically, the various factions are far closer together than they are politically, with few really fundamental differences of approach between WiMAX, DoCoMo’s 4G experiments for next generation W-CDMA, and Qualcomm’s plans for a future for CDMA2000. This was clearly shown by DoCoMo’s demonstration of 1Gbps 4G connections in its laboratories just before Christmas, just a month after Siemens showed similar performance using WiMAX-like OFDM.

In the DoCoMo demo, a downlink speed of 1Gbps was achieved in a laboratory experiment using a combination of VSF (Variable Spreading Factor) Spread OFDM and the smart antenna technique, MIMO (Multiple In Multiple Out), a popular approach for WiMAX that employs arrays of antennas to send data in multiple paths. DoCoMo admitted the distances were short, since the experiment was indoors, and that its techniques are mainly focused on rapid downlink, with uplink speeds not disclosed. Last fall, DoCoMo demonstrated downstream data rates of 300Mbps with an average rate of 135Mbps, in a car running at 30 kilometers per hour at around 800 meters from the 4G base station.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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