Super 3G group flexes its muscles

DoCoMo takes on WiMAX

Asian-driven 4G

Their aggression has not just been about commercial leadership but about swinging the balance of power in the mobile industry towards Asia, reducing the power of the European and US companies in this critical sector. Japan and Korea have the most advanced deployments of mobile and broadband networks in the world, and their corporations aim to take advantage of this to set the global technology agenda, increase their own influence and revenues, and reduce the burden of royalties to western suppliers such as Qualcomm. In this, they have the important backing of China, whose suppliers are less technologically advanced, but which is keen to ally with Japan and Korea and use the weight of its market size to gain bargaining power for the region.

Now, however, the collaboration of China, Japan and Korea to drive 4G is fragmenting somewhat. The main parties involved agree on the principle of an Asian-driven next generation, but disagree on the technologies involved. Samsung and LG see WiMAX as a technology that, thanks to the Wi-Bro compromise, they are now in a position to dominate, and which could deliver real world 4G before 2010. Samsung holds hundreds of patents related to 4G and says 100 of its patents are incorporated in 3G and 4G standards. That number will rise significantly because of Wi-Bro.

Reactions to Super 3G

DoCoMo, excluded from this party, has to pursue a different technological route, hence the creation of the Super 3G group. On announcement of the Super 3G group, Samsung dismissed it as “just a DoCoMo event”, claiming the Japanese company was trying, once again, to work outside the industry standards process. The efforts of the various technology groups should be pooled to create 4G, not allowed to fragment the standard, it argued. "Super 3G plan seems to be a part of NTT DoCoMo’s global strategy. The companies involved in Super 3G project did nothing but declaring their intention of starting something, so we don’t take it seriously,” said a spokesperson to the Telecom Korea publication.

LG Electronics said: "Considering DoCoMo has always been the first to develop new technologies but failed in expanding market share due to staying away from global trend of standardization, Super 3G is a part of its efforts to dominate the 4G market by drawing attention to a similar project while 4G standardization is under way.”

Most vendors, of course, will keep a watching brief on both initiatives. DoCoMo’s friends, such as NEC, are of course in the new body, but so are Alcatel, Siemens, Lucent and Motorola, all companies with interest in WiMAX but with a need to follow any technology that could be demanded by their key customers in future. Even Samsung itself is said to be joining, alongside Qualcomm. This is not unusual behavior – Samsung’s usual policy is to support any potential standard and see what the market demands.

However, the presence of these two CDMA giants does not indicate genuine support, but a need to keep a toehold in a fundamentally hostile camp, one that aims to preserve the W-CDMA heritage. Such moves are likely to drive Qualcomm and the CDMA sector even more rapidly towards creating a migration path for CDMA2000 that will move smoothly to WiMAX or other OFDM technologies. Qualcomm has shifted in this direction already with its OFDM-based FLO platform and has started filing patents enthusiastically in this area.

We expect current CDMA operators to gain a far smoother path to ‘4G’ than their W-CDMA rivals. Qualcomm and other key CDMA suppliers are more focused on integrating with, and eventually migrating to, OFDM than the GSM world, and are focusing on a technology that is already highly developed. Hybrid mobile networks will be a possibility from 2007 and a true 4G system will be viable before the end of the decade. By contrast, WCDMA operators face being pushed by the decisions of the heavyweights among them - which cannot be ignored by the vendors – down a route to a shiny new 4G technology.

While this may have more in common with W-CDMA and so offer a smoother technological upgrade once it arrives, it is likely to take many years to evolve, and will be held back by conflicts with other developments, including WiMAX and other 4G projects, all of which will cause confusion and will dilute the R&D resources of the supplier community. There is already a strong feeling that W-CDMA operators may be stuck with an inferior technology. Clinging to it and taking on the expense and risk of a whole new standards path could be suicidal, as the CDMA carriers, and a huge group of new entrants to mobility, leap on to a technology that, for all its faults, is just around the corner.

Additional background: NTT DoCoMo’s technology

The Super 3G members claim they will have specifications, based on the current WCDMA technology, by mid-2007 and working systems by 2009. Technologically, the various factions are far closer together than they are politically, with few really fundamental differences of approach between WiMAX, DoCoMo’s 4G experiments for next generation W-CDMA, and Qualcomm’s plans for a future for CDMA2000. This was clearly shown by DoCoMo’s demonstration of 1Gbps 4G connections in its laboratories just before Christmas, just a month after Siemens showed similar performance using WiMAX-like OFDM.

In the DoCoMo demo, a downlink speed of 1Gbps was achieved in a laboratory experiment using a combination of VSF (Variable Spreading Factor) Spread OFDM and the smart antenna technique, MIMO (Multiple In Multiple Out), a popular approach for WiMAX that employs arrays of antennas to send data in multiple paths. DoCoMo admitted the distances were short, since the experiment was indoors, and that its techniques are mainly focused on rapid downlink, with uplink speeds not disclosed. Last fall, DoCoMo demonstrated downstream data rates of 300Mbps with an average rate of 135Mbps, in a car running at 30 kilometers per hour at around 800 meters from the 4G base station.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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