Wi-Fi, WiMAX and LTE: the next generation of mobile broadband

Representatives of each mobile broadband choice joined us for a roundtable discussion where they discussed bandwidth, deployment plans and costs of their respective technologies.

We gathered representatives of each of the three major mobile broadband technologies into a live chat room and asked. Our shoot-out panel was led by Network World wireless alert newsletter writer and analyst Joanie Wexler. The participants were Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance; Dan Warren, director of technology of the GSM Association; and Dr. Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of marketing of the WiMAX Forum.

Employees want anywhere, anytime access and IT departments now have more wireless choices than ever to give them just that. Which should you choose? We gathered representatives of each of the three major mobile broadband technologies into a live chat room and asked. Our shoot-out panel was led by Network World Wireless Alert Newsletter writer and analyst Joanie Wexler. The participants were Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance; Dan Warren, director of technology of the GSM Association; and Dr. Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of marketing of the WiMAX Forum.

Participants were questioned about true per-user bandwidth (versus basic connect rates and theoretical rates achieved the lab). They were asked about support for smartphones and the type of applications their technologies were best suited to serve. Plus, they were queried on billing rates and killer roaming charges. Each explained under what circumstances his respective technology was the best choice for the user.

Moderator-Julie: Hello and welcome to the chat. Let’s lay some groundwork first about the pervasiveness of Wi-Fi, WiMAX and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services. Specifically, approximately how many Wi-Fi hotspots are available globally? When will mobile WiMAX service be pervasively available in the U.S.? Globally? When will LTE service be pervasively available in the U.S.? Globally?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: The 250,000 worldwide hotspots represent only one data point in Wi-Fi's strong industry footprint. Last year our industry grew at over 40%. Wi-Fi is already the preferred wireless LAN technology across the globe, and yet industry Wi-Fi shipments are expected to quadruple between now and 2013 according to ABI Research. There are also over 500 million Wi-Fi users and the Wi-Fi Alliance has certified over 5,000 Wi-Fi products. All in all, Wi-Fi momentum continues into the foreseeable future.

Joanie Wexler: Edgar, you say Wi-Fi is "already the preferred wireless LAN technology." What other kinds of WLANs are there?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: None

Joanie Wexler: OK, thanks for clarifying!

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: I like easy questions.

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: WiMAX is getting deployed in 50+ commercial roll outs, city by city. U.S. deployment in Jackson Hole, WY, and then Baltimore has started. We expect, by the end of '09, expanded coverage.

Dan Warren - GSM: LTE will be commercially available in some markets from 2010, of which we expect North America to be one.

Joanie Wexler: Will LTE be backward compatible with the CDMA-based technologies (e.g., EV-DO), Dan?

Dan Warren - GSM: There will be a handover to CDMA technologies for sure. Verizon in particular and other CDMA operators have been very active in 3GPP to make sure that their interests have been maintained and certainly the specs are in place. You can judge for yourself on what Verizon thinks about products based on their statements on LTE

Moderator-Julie: What's the expected per-user bandwidth (both upstream and downstream) for Mobile WiMAX and LTE? How do these speeds compare with Wi-Fi? With today's 3G speeds offered by HSPA/UMTS and EV-DO?

Joanie Wexler: Note: this might depend on how the carrier chooses to divvy up the bandwidth among subscribers. Hoping the GSM and WiMAX folks might know how carriers could be planning to do that.

Dan Warren - GSM: Target speeds for 'Next Gen' technology are 100Mbps downlink (DL) and 50 Mbps uplink (UL). Current tests performed by LSTI have demonstrated lab condition peak rates of 172Mbps DL and 50Mbps UL. This is based on a 20MHz spectrum and is in lab conditions, so deployed rates will be considerably lower but will still be in the tens of Mbps range.

Joanie Wexler: So "tens of Mbps" per-subscriber?

Dan Warren - GSM: In terms of real experienced throughput, yes, tens ... there are too many factors that affect all radio interfaces to be too precise. Theoretical and lab based maximums grab the headlines but there needs to be a degree of pragmatism. As for HSPA [GSM-based High-Speed Packet Access], currently HSPA-deployed services in some markets are offering peak rates of 14.4Mbps, with 76 operators supporting 3.6Mbps and [another] 43 supporting rates up to 7.2Mbps. 43 network operators are supporting HSUPA [uplink]. HSPA evolved will deliver up to 42Mbps, and will start to be deployed commercially next year - enhancements include QAM64 and 2x2 MIMO.

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: For WiMAX release 1, we achieve 45Mbps DL and 13Mbps UL for the 10MHz channel today. By the end of '09, release 1.5 speed goes up to 144Mbps DL and 69M UL for the 20MHz channel. Broadband!

Joanie Wexler: I'm trying to ascertain what a given subscriber might be able to expect from WiMAX, LTE or other mobile WAN technology. "Broadband" unfortunately, has different meanings depending on who's using the term. Mohammad, are those rates per-subscriber?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: User speed is moving to Mbps on a shared broadband network. Users should be able to burst to 2Mbps. The key is what the end user can do with the network -- the Internet experience for the user. For example, 3G on the iPhone can get a few hundred kbps!

Joanie Wexler: Mo - Exactly! Which is why I'm trying to get a "real world" feel for the per-user bandwidth, rather than the total/aggregate that a carrier can cover a region with. This has always been an elusive question.

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: For Wi-Fi, 300 Mbps up/down is typical in real applications using 802.11n draft 2.0 certified products at 20 MHz.

Joanie Wexler: Edgar - just to clarify: the 300Mbps is a data connect rate, not actual throughput, right?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: We consistently see real throughput of 150 Mbps up, 150 Mbps down using 802.11n draft 2.0 products.

Dan Warren - GSM: That's what I mean when I say about pragmatism... there are a lot of statements about the maximum theoretical throughput of all of these technologies, but the real comparisons come down to where you happen to be standing...

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: As Dan stated, it's not easy to come up with one number.

Joanie Wexler: A range will work, though. Would "between 1 and 10Mbps in early services" be accurate?

Dan Warren - GSM: But the other aspect to the user experience is where you can take your device and still get service. There is definitely a question of the scale to which a technology is deployed and how many markets it addresses. I was really pleased to see HSPA included in your question, Joanie, because it does seem to be a bit of a forgotten cousin at times. There are nearly 200 live HSPA networks out there around the world with well over 60 million subscribers.

Joanie Wexler: What is the average throughput of these HSPA nets, up and down?

Dan Warren - GSM: Well the best average (if you can get your head round that) is around 1Mbps on HSDPA, that's DL. For HSUPA, there are not many figures... so I'm not going to comment.

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: Dan, I cannot get that in Silicon Valley yet!

Dan Warren - GSM: Mo, I can't tell you which service offers that as a best average but you'll have to move a looooong way from Silicon Valley.

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: I am actually just looking for good voice signal in my home area. Maybe I need to move to India or China. But Joanie, the focus is not just about speed. Instead we need to talk about things like always on, interactive communication, high quality video streaming, local content integration and an open device model. Most of our operators use WiFi, some form of 2G or 3G in the network.

Joanie Wexler: Speed is where you start. Interactive communication and video aren't much good if you only have a few kbps. Which brings me to Edgar - any idea when we might see 11n in hotpots?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: The move to 802.11n technology is happening already. New hotspots are likely to be equipped with 802.11n draft 2.0 equipment since more than 50% of the equipment sold in the industry today is 802.11n. We also know the equipment replacement cycle for Wi-Fi products is between 18 to 36 months. As hotspots upgrade equipment they are likely to upgrade with 802.11n product.

Joanie Wexler: Edgar - any figures on .11n hotspot deployment as of yet?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: We do not track those specifics but want to point out that, from the end-user perspective, if a user has .11n equipment, that equipment will work with legacy hotspot equipment.

Moderator-Julie: Shall we talk about apps now? Today's mobility options outside the office include Wi-Fi hotspots, 3G cellular, mobile WiMAX and, in the future, LTE. Could each of you offer an example of the most appropriate "best-fit" enterprise applications for each of your technologies?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: Affordable Internet.

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is the wireless LAN technology in the enterprise, as depicted by 100% attach rate on notebook computers. Where Wi-Fi has delivered for the enterprise -- in addition to traditional LAN applications like Web and e-mail -- we are seeing Wi-Fi being used in real time media applications like voice over IP. We expect fixed and mobile convergence to continue to become a strong component of the applications mix for Wi-Fi. For example, we expect the industry to ship 500 million Wi-Fi enabled handsets by 2012.

Dan Warren - GSM: Mobility combined with high bandwidth connections allows the mobile workforce to be better connected to enterprise applications based in the office. This has been seen already with HSPA in the sales area, where processing of orders that previously could only be confirmed upon 'return to base' can now be completed onsite, thus providing a better experience for the customer as well as the salesman. It also allows high bandwidth content to be delivered to workers where there is no fixed access.

Joanie Wexler: OK, but let's say I have (in a perfect world) Wi-Fi, WiMAX and LTE (or something close) available to me pretty much wherever I am. How do I figure out which mix of services to use for which application? E.g., Wi-Fi might not be best for field service, but might be fine for traditional business workers.

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: Your question should be from the user perspective -- not from what the technology can do!

Dan Warren - GSM: Mo, don't you think they are two sides to the same coin?

Dan Warren - GSM: If the technology isn't where you are, the end user perspective is that the service is non-existent.

Joanie Wexler: Say I'm an IT director or network manager for a large enterprise. The services all sound very similar to me - "broadband wireless Internet." Is it all about cost? How will I distinguish services from the various providers? Why not just use Wi-Fi for everything?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: What is key is to have it everywhere. For example, WiFi for indoors, hot zones, will be leveraged and some will try to expand it -- as long they know the limitation of unlicensed frequencies.

Dan Warren - GSM: Did I mention nearly 200 HSPA network deployments across 114 countries? :-)

Joanie Wexler: OK, Mo - can you tell us what the pervasiveness of WiMAX is today (how many worldwide metro regions are covered)?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: WiMAX is deployed by 400+ operators and 70+ are mobile WiMAX. Having a wide area network like WiMAX -- or even HSPA -- does not mean WiFi or wired lines will go away. The key is operators are using multimode to make business. Most of the money in cellular is voice not broadband.

Joanie Wexler: My goal is to help sort out for business customers how to determine which mix of services to consider for which populations of users and which applications. Mo, the audience I'm trying to reach with this info is the enterprise IT department - not the mobile network operator.

Dan Warren - GSM: For a business user (and speaking as one) then the key point is availability and ease of use. And that means that your point on geographic spread and deployment is a key one. If you are going to rely on a technology or a mix of technologies then you have to make a choice that allows your workers to be connected as well and as often as possible.

Joanie Wexler: OK....let's say 3G/4G are all available, easy to use and comparably priced. What does the business customer need to know?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: Operators will allow enterprises to build their own private wide area networks. This does not exist today other than WiFi. They need to know who has adopted what and where they can take the technology with them. Due to the advantages of wide area broadband capacity, the operators are looking on unique enterprise applications that are ties to specific enterprises.

Moderator-Julie: Let's move on. Increasingly, creative new data-intensive applications are being built for the latest and greatest smartphones (some open source, others not). But high usage charges and out-of-country roaming fees are barriers to adoption. What can associations like yours do to help tame global roaming and usage fees so that users can live without the fear of unknown usage charges that will deter them from using the service?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: The Wi-Fi Alliance is focused on providing the best experience with wireless connectivity. We do not get into the realm of roaming business plans, usage fees, etc.

Joanie Wexler: Edgar, so when might it be appropriate for me to use a worldwide Wi-Fi service (such as from DeFi Mobile) in lieu of a traditional mobile WAN service?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: Consumers make such choices everyday based on their specific criteria. Here is one example: In the U.S. and France there is a compelling UMA-based service from T-Mobile and Orange, respectively. They provide voice over Wi-Fi with unlimited minutes.

Joanie Wexler: Edgar, these are more oriented to consumers and SOHOS right?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: If I am a user or enterprise using a lot of minutes, perhaps this would be a compelling service.

Joanie Wexler: My thought is that if I were accommodating business executives (not field service personnel, reporters or others who have to be out in the wild), I might just use a global Wi-Fi service and be done with it. Mo, Dan, talk me out of this....

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: Using WiMAX the enterprises can leverage the global economies of scale for devices and laptops to build applications specific for their use.

Dan Warren - GSM: How many WiMAX subscribers are there, Mo?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: We have tracked the deployments as this is a new technology. 400+ deployments. Mass market of WiMAX is happening now.

Moderator-Julie: Let's talk about devices ... What do you think the mobile device trends are for businesses? Smartphones with dual Wi-Fi/cellular connections are what we talk about a lot, but can be pretty pricey for more casual employees. Do you see a future for empowering users of non-smartphones, too?

Dan Warren - GSM: The mobile broadband device trends are twofold: there is the rise of the smartphone for those that want to have that kind of device, and there is the even more rapid rise of the mobile broadband-enabled notebook PC, either with mobile broadband inherently built-in or as a low-cost peripheral add on.

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: There are an increasing number of dual-mode phones that don't have smartphone features but which can still enable businesses to take advantage of the Wi-Fi cost advantages in the LAN. We've certified 78 dual-mode phone models that don't have smartphone capabilities and have both Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity.

Joanie Wexler: Edgar - how interesting! Who is likely to use these devices?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: The users range from folks using some of the UMA services I mentioned, to business users who do not want to use their phones as PDAs but want the best connected experience at all times.

Joanie Wexler: EF - In other words, they are voice-centric users wanting to do cellular voice and Vo-Fi when available? Not data-oriented?

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: Correct.

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: For businesses, embedded laptops, MIDs [mobile Internet devices] for broadband and multimode phones are also common. Today most business users are doing e-mail. With the IP nature of WiMAX, we expect to have enterprise applications on the go. The key is enterprise application. Consumer applications are very different. What an enterprise needs is QoS, security, flexibility of applications. OPEN is flexibility -- to have many devices and applications supported. This is the Internet versus ATM model.

Dan Warren - GSM: I'd say everyone wants QoS, security and flexibility. When it comes to empowering non-smartphone users, it is not a question of "dumbing down" devices so much as making the features that these users want, smarter, in smaller steps. Initiatives like the Rich Communication Suite project allow subscribers to have enhanced "friends" lists, "capability exchange," IM and new ways of making connections. 

Joanie Wexler: Dan, Mohammad - do you see Wi-Fi as a competitor? Edgar, do you see WiMAX and GSM-based networks as competitors?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: WiFi is here to stay and WiFi hot spots are critical to get capacity increases for indoor coverage.

Joanie Wexler: Mo - can you expound on that? - licensed and unlicensed?

Mohammad Shakouri - WiMAX: There is not enough spectrum to meet the needs of consumers without paying billions. We need to leverage unlicensed bands to achieve affordable broadband for everyone.

Dan Warren - GSM: I think Wi-Fi is a competitor but in a complementary way. The deployment model of Wi-Fi is very much different since it is not currently a macro network technology.

Edgar Figueroa - Wi-Fi: We see Wi-Fi coexisting with these other wireless technologies. Wi-Fi is unique because of reasons we all know and love: spectrum, affordability, throughput, range.

Dan Warren - GSM: In the last comment, we kind of skipped over roaming. What I want to say is that roaming is probably one of the key things that is going to determine success or failure of a technology. I am obviously going to say that GSM and that family of technologies has an advantage because we have been doing it for years

Joanie Wexler: I agree 100% with you on the roaming issue. It's a make-or-break thing.

Dan Warren - GSM: We have seen HSPA take off, and we have that legacy. That means that taking a HSPA device to another country technically is very easy. I turn it on, it works, no sign on, no manual configuration, completely secured. And that gets bigger with LTE, because so many of the CDMA-2000 operators seem to be heading to LTE. China Mobile operators are, too. There won't be anywhere you won't get access.

Joanie Wexler: But I pay huge roaming and long-distance fees. Especially on the iPhone which does stuff in the background when I'm not even using it, eating up minutes and megabytes ....

Dan Warren - GSM: I know... bill shock... but data roaming prices are falling rapidly as mobile broadband services become widespread and operators compete with each other and alternative services, such as Wi-Fi and hotel broadband. The average retail price of sending or receiving a megabyte of data while roaming within the European Union, for example, has fallen approximately 50% in nine months to 3.5 Euros in the first quarter of 2008.

As a result, the data roaming market is growing rapidly as travelers take advantage of the convenience of mobile broadband networks to access the Internet and other multimedia services. The volume of data roaming traffic in the EU more than doubled from around 25.7 million megabytes in the second quarter of 2007 to 61 million megabytes in the first quarter of 2008, according to the European Regulators Group. That's not all due to iPhones doing things in the background.

Moderator-Julie: Sadly, we are out of time. I want to thank you all for joining us today.

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