WiMax spectrum row heats up

The GSM Association says a valuable band of spectrum should be restricted to 3G use only, but members of the WiMax community want it kept neutral to stimulate innovation

Supporters of WiMax technology are up in arms after a mobile industry body called for key bands of spectrum to be reserved for 3G services.

The GSM Association (GSMA), which represents a range of mobile operators worldwide, issued a plea on Monday for regulators to keep so-called 3G extension bands "reserved for the IMT-2000 family of technologies" — 3G, in other words.

The Association was responding to moves within the European Commission (EC) to change the way in which radio spectrum is allocated. Whereas chunks of spectrum have traditionally been handed over to specific technologies, some within the EC are now proposing to keep certain bands "technology neutral".

The band in question, 2.5-2.690 GHz, includes the lowest available frequencies suitable for mobile services. It is ideal for new bandwidth-hungry 3G services such as mobile TV, and also for making mobile WiMax — seen by many as a potential threat to 3G — a viable proposition.

"The story is that initially it was decided to allocate these bands all across Europe in 2008," Ovum analyst Vincent Poulbere told ZDNet UK on Monday.

"They are an important stage for technologies which are not 3G technologies… this is may be the only band that will allow new entrants to develop mobile networks," Poulbere explained.

The GSMA argues that allowing competing technologies to share a frequency band across Europe will make it more expensive to produce handsets and other equipment.

"If it's used for lots of different technologies then anybody trying to manufacture equipment for those spectrum bands is going to be dealing with a fragmented market. If it's harmonised, that creates the economies of scale that manufacturers enjoy with GSM," the Association's David Pringle told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

Pringle suggested that mobile WiMax could itself become an IMT-2000 technology, for which it would have to seek approval by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN body of which the WiMax Forum (the organisation co-ordinating the development of WiMax) is a member.

"The criteria include [things such as] full mobility. If mobile WiMax can meet those criteria and is accepted, then we're entirely comfortable with that," Pringle said, adding: "Technology neutrality as a principle we're comfortable with, but we're just saying that mobile communications is such a valuable industry that certain bands need to be reserved for it".

However, members of the WiMax community have claimed that the GSMA is being disingenuous by proposing that mobile WiMax takes the IMT-2000 route.

"Basically they're blocking us from becoming an IMT-2000 technology… the mobile community is obviously very powerful," Paul Senior, vice president of marketing for WiMax vendor Airspan, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

Senior suggested it was impossible to join a standard that was created six years ago, but said there was an opportunity for mobile WiMax to form part of IMT-Advanced — the ITU specification which will succeed IMT-2000.

"This is complicated by the major debate regarding Long Term Evolution [LTE]," Senior added, referring to the next stage for 3G technology. "One position is that LTE should be the only technology for IMT-Advanced, but LTE is extremely close to mobile WiMax."

He claimed that regulators in the UK and US were sympathetic to the WiMax lobby's pleas for technology neutrality, but said "strong European players" were going along with the 3G lobby instead.

In December the WiMax Forum wrote to the EC, arguing that freeing up the 2.5-2.69 GHz band would "enable innovation and competition in personal broadband services". 

The European Regulatory Framework for electronic communications is currently under review, and a representative of the EC's spectrum policy unit told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the Commission has not yet been able to find "common ground" between member states.

The review is currently out for comment until the end of October, after which point the EC will decide its standpoint on technology neutrality.