Ofcom's decision to auction off a 192 MHz segment of the 2.6 GHz radio spectrum in the first quarter of 2008 may open the way for a controversial nationwide introduction of mobile WiMax into the UK.
The regulator expects to publish the terms of the auction in October or November this year, but is currently still evaluating whether to run it in one or more rounds, and how it should package up the spectrum.
But the move could prove a contentious one among existing operators, because mobile WiMax has variously been pitched as a potential usurper of 4G — the successor to curren-day 3G cellular networks — and as a rival to Wi-Fi wireless technology, into which operators have sunk a lot of money already.
So what is mobile WiMax, and where are potential conflicts likely to appear?
WiMax is a long-range, high-bandwidth wireless technology that is optimised for data traffic but, unlike Wi-Fi, it does not require line of sight — that is, no obstacles — to operate. The technology is based on the IEEE 802.16 family of standards for wireless metropolitan area networks and was given its name — Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access — by industry group the WiMax Forum, which was set up in June 2001 to promote it and certify accredited products as interoperable.
Mobile WiMax, meanwhile, is based on the 802.16e-2005 standard and can be used in a truly mobile fashion, by devices such as phones, and in a nomadic sense, by machines such as laptops.
Where mobile WiMax is expected to garner particular interest, however, is in developing countries that currently have only a limited wired infrastructure in place. This is because the costs involved in installing WiMax stations to complement existing cellular towers are likely to be lower than introducing fixed pipes from scratch, particularly in areas of low population density where the terrain is flat.
Some cellular operators in parts of the developed world are also touting mobile WiMax as a means of increasing bandwidth for data-intensive applications such as multimedia. For example, Sprint Nextel announced in 2006 that it would spend $3bn (£1.5bn) on building a US-based WiMax network operating at 2.5GHz, which would start roll out by the end of this year and provide services to at least 100 million people by the end of 2008.
Challenges facing the UK
But the situation may be somewhat different in the UK, where five cellular operators spent a vast £22.5bn on their 3G licences when they were auctioned in March 2000 to little immediate return. This means that they may be more reluctant to spend additional sums on a wireless equivalent unless the commercial gains are clear.
Rob Bamforth, a principal analyst at Quocirca, observes: "Incumbent mobile operators may look at mobile WiMax to extend their own footprint, but it could cause them problems in terms of positioning. If they simply regard the technology as another form of 4G, it could just become part of their natural evolution, but if they want to position it as something new and radical, it will present more of a challenge."
As a result, Bamforth thinks it more likely that telcos such as BT or Colt will look at mobile WiMax as a means of providing customers with mobile access "under their own steam without having to do deals with mobile operators", while new players such as Google may also try and get a slice of the action to obtain a fresh channel for providing content. "It will be intriguing to see who steps in. Mobile WiMax gives an opportunity for someone who's not a mobile operator now to move into this space, so it could prove interesting as we move to a more converged fixed and mobile world," he says.
If BT were to bite, Dean Bubley, principal analyst at Disruptive Analysis, believes that it would probably not make mobile WiMax a mass-market proposition. A more likely scenario for Bubley would be for the vendor to integrate the technology with IP PBXs to enable it to support voice, before packaging it up with other network and security technologies, and wrapping consultancy and support services around it to sell to enterprises.
However, Bubley is not convinced that there is a clear business case for mobile WiMax at present. "The obvious use case is to embed it in laptops, but this seems initially more appealing to consumers for things like games," he explains.
To make matters worse, Bubley does not expect a full UK roll-out of WiMax to happen overnight, not least because of the...