The fight for mobile Internet dominance

The fight for mobile Internet dominance

In some circles it’s being billed as the title fight to decide Australia’s next-generation communications. But in others, the 3G versus WiMax battle is more a case of two technologies representing the same mobile Internet team

Recent months have seen a lot of huff and puff about Australia's next generation of mobile Internet. Almost weekly, reports filter in of the rise of one technology and demise of the other.

We've had Telstra launch its NextG network, Unwired deploy a pre-WiMax network, the Federal Government axe its $1 billion contract with Optus and Elders wireless broadband consortium, Opel, Intel drop 3G from its fourth-generation Centrino platform and countless other jabs and counter-jabs.

The tone of the stoush generally runs along the lines of whether WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access based on the IEEE 802.16e-2005 standard) will be able to deliver a knockout blow to 3G, or if the reigning champ will floor the challenger.

In this match-up the outcome is far from decided, but it certainly hasn't prevented hype from both sides. But the question of who comes out on top is not only pertinent for Australia's burgeoning mobile Internet market, it is being asked around the world as businesses look to capitalise on new mobility solutions.

Diverse countries like Bangladesh, Korea, Japan, Pakistan, Brazil and the US - thanks to Sprint Nextel - are all considering WiMax as a serious contender to take 3G's title.

Many, particularly the developing nations, are putting in their own backhaul because they simply don't want to rely on service providers and lease fibre.

The technology battle

But just what are 3G and WiMax? For the unfamiliar Intel's Asia-Pacific managing director for WiMax, Garth Collier, provided a simplified explanation.

"WiMax and 3G are both approved standards by the International Telecommunications Union," he said. "You can think of WiMax as a data network which also does VoIP, and 2.5G and 3G as a circuit-switched voice network which also does IP data."

For some observers, including Ovum analyst, Nathan Burley, picking which technology will take precedence in Australia's wireless communications future isn't so easy; there are a number of parochial supporters in both corners.

"It really depends on who you talk to. This is the problem with any 3G or WiMax story," he said. "Often when we talk about costs here we're not comparing apples with apples, so it's very difficult to make a direct comparison. WiMax does things that 3G can't and 3G does things WiMax can't."

Different market views are, understandably, coloured by vested interests. Burley claimed 3G backers such as Telstra are not interested in WiMax but, on the other hand, someone like Optus, who has a big stake in WiMax and 3G technology, claims the technologies are complementary and will continue to be so.

So is there really a title fight on the cards? Or is it more a case of healthy sparring between stable-mates? It appears the latter position holds sway with most in the sector, including Intel's Collier. "The fact that wireless systems require spectrum to operate, and future mobile broadband data demand will require lots of spectrum, points towards certain wireless systems having 'sweet spots' for certain bands of spectrum," he said. "For example, in the 3.4-3.6GHz band, which is utilised mostly for fixed, last-mile broadband, WiMax is dominant and there's no indication of that changing.

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