(Originally posted at http://www.von.com/blogs/guest/2008/11/some-thoughts-on-wireless-standards.aspx )
To many outside the industry, standards bodies often appear as an arcane group of eccentrics who spend years debating minutiae. Actually, they appear this way to many of us in the industry as well! However, standards bodies play a critical role in industry, as they drive toward consensus related to supported use case requirements, and technical means of achieving these. While representatives from most companies participate in these meetings, there is an element of democracy contained within the process and overt politicking is severely discouraged.
Many have suggested that the reason the U.S. lagged behind Europe in wireless deployments and adoption was that there was no unifying technology standard, in contrast to Europe, where GSM was widely adopted as the consensus standard. This enabled seamless roaming across the continent and allowed handset manufacturers to achieve economies of scale more easily.
If you look at the wireless industry holistically, there are two main standards bodies: 3GPP and IEEE. Each will say that they’re very different from the other, with 3GPP focused on cellular standards, while IEEE is focused on a broader range of standards, from wireless personal area networks (WPAN), wireless local area networks (WLAN) to wireless wide area networks (RAN).
Historically, there has perhaps been an acceptable rationale for this bifurcation. The cellular industry was focused on the delivery of voice-over-legacy circuit-switched networks, and used a whole host of air interfaces (time/frequency/code division), each designed to support large numbers of users in very narrow bands of licensed spectrum.
The IEEE was focused on the delivery of data across IP networks, and has developed a series of air interfaces based on particular use cases. With the exception of 802.11b, which uses a direct sequence, spread spectrum modulation, every other flavor of 802.11 (i.e. .11a, g, n, etc.), 802.16 (aka WiMAX), 802.20 (aka Mobile Broadband Wireless Access or MBWA) use OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing).
What the industry is finally seeing is a degree of convergence, although not yet formally.
There is some debate as to which technology becomes the official “4G” standard. There are proponents of 802.16-2005 (Mobile WiMAX), while others support the proposed 3GPP 4G standard, LTE (Long Term Evolution).
Notwithstanding this debate, legacy circuit-switched voice networks are becoming packet switched, and increasingly capable of supporting significant data traffic. Data networks are increasingly capable of supporting significant voice traffic, with applications like VoIP and VoWLAN. 3GPP standards, such as LTE, are migrating to OFDM and IP.
The debate about which standard is “best,” is largely irrelevant. One could make a strong argument that 802.16 (WiMAX) is a better outdoor standard than 802.11 (Wi-Fi), or claim that its performance exceeds current 3G systems. Yet many remain skeptical as to the widespread adoption of Mobile WiMAX.
Time will tell.
“Best” is not only a function of waveform or data rate. Cost, ubiquity, market timing, industry uptake and standards roadmap all impact the commercial success or failure of a particular technology. At the end of the day, it is too much to expect that a single technology will be “best” in all use cases. Seamless, transparent interoperability is what matters, as both 3GPP and IEEE standards are likely to co-exist and ultimately, complement the other.
That’s my .02!
Martin Suter is vice president of business development at BelAir Networks, a provider of broadband mesh solutions for Wi-Fi, WiMAX, 4.9 GHz Public Safety and 5.9 GHz ITS networks. Previously, Martin was the CEO at Cohda Wireless, where he raised the company’s profile and negotiated a licensing deal with a Fortune 100 vendor in its core franchise. Prior to Cohda, he was vice president of business development at MeshNetworks Inc., a classic tech transfer/disruptive technology success story that achieved a major liquidity event for its investors in Q4/2004 with its acquisition by Motorola. Martin also was responsible for building several high profile alliances with and for leading technology companies, including Fujitsu, Microsoft, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and Teradata. Additionally, Martin has successfully negotiated technology transfer, distribution and/or licensing deals with companies like 3Com, BioChem Pharma, Dow Chemical, Exodus, Fujitsu, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, Netscape and Sun.