Stephen Bell is one of the few people who can justifiably claim to have seen the connected future. As head of Wimax device business unit of the US communication equipment makerMotorola Inc., Bell and his team, together with similar teams at Korean consumer electronics maker Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd and chip maker Intel Corp., will determine the time, shape and success of the next evolution in wireless personal communication: mobile Wimax.
Wimax is short for worldwide inter-operability for microwave access, a standard that is capable of data speeds of 10 megabits per second up to 2km away from a radio transmitter.
With such wide ranges, telecom design engineers believe that Wimax presents itself as not just a powerful alternative to the so-called third generation (or 3G) wireless telecom networks for data, but also as a cheap and efficient alternative to voice communications compared with current cellular networks.
Tech check: Stephen Bell, head of Wimax devices, Motorola Inc.
Bell and his team of engineers and researchers at Motorola’s hand-held and chipset research centre in Florida are designing hand-held devices to be used on the first major Wimax initiative in the world—the $3 billion (Rs12,300 crore) Sprint-Nextel network, expected to be operational towards the year end.
Motorola is one of only three big consumer electronics companies building Wimax hand-held devices ground up from the chip level. While Samsung and Intel are also engaged in developing the chips, the other two big brands associated with the Sprint network, Nokia Oyj and LG Electronics, are expected to use third-party chipsets.
“It will look less like a phone (and) more like an MID,” said Bell, in India last week to participate in a conference on Wimax, giving a peek into the two instruments likely to be released by mid-next year.
MIDs or mobile Internet devices are hand-helds with a large screen—typically four-seven inches wide—and a hidden or detachable keypads, making them closer to a portable media player than a cellphone.
Motorola, Samsung, Intel and Nokia have commitments to bring out end-user devices as part of the Sprint-Nextel network roll-out. Wimax, though deployed by more than 50 operators and Internet service providers across the world, is yet to catch the mobile consumer’s fancy over the non-availability of hand-held devices that support the so-called fourth-generation communication protocol.
While Indian operators Reliance Communications Ltd, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Aircel Cellular Ltd have launched Wimax-based services, they have so far focused only on the fixed standard aimed primarily at residential broadband customers. As a result, larger brands such as Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Alcatel-Lucent, who junked the fixed version in favour of the mobile version at the outset, are conspicuous by their absence in the Indian market.
“We believe that it will be the mobile version, which can also support residential users (that) will ultimately gain acceptance,” said Bell, who expects Indian operators to switch over to the mobile version, once the hand-held devices start coming out by the year end. While the devices currently being designed by the five companies—Motorola, Intel, Samsung, Nokia and LG—will be customized for running on Sprint’s Wimax-CDMA dual network, Bell says the devices can be shipped to India, too, if the orders are placed in time. So far, only state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) has plans to set up a mobile Wimax network in India.
During its year-long trials and testing, Motorola has already developed one device, based on its ultra-slim Razr platform, which supports both CDMA and Wimax, but Bell says the full-impact of the high-speed capabilities of the network is better appreciated on large-screen MIDs. (CDMA is short for code division multiple access, a cellular standard.)
“We have been doing trials of video-on-demand on the devices, at full 30 frames per second.. and when we connected the phone to a TV set, it looked absolutely brilliant,” said Bell, who expects the phone-TV combination to give the landline-PC combination a run for its money. “The experience you are going to get on your existing productivity and Internet applications is going to knock your socks off.”
In a break from the normal practice of using third-party chipsets (the microprocessors that control most of the activities of the device), Motorola and Samsung have joined a clutch of small semi-conductor manufacturers trying to make chips themselves. “We thought, since it is a new technology, we should not depend too much on any one company for the chips and designs,” Bell said. Motorola will get the chips fabricated by semiconductor firm Texas Instruments Inc. and later licence the chips to other handset makers to embed it in their devices.
While the Wimax Forum, the body that sets the standards for the emerging format, was supposed to have started certification of Wimax ‘e’ or ‘Wave 2’—the standard that will allow one to access the service even from fast-moving vehicles— chipsets and devices by the end of 2006, it had to push it back to the second half of this year due to developmental delays. Amid reports of further delays and postponements in certification, Sprint has set up a facility to test interoperability of the devices and network elements in Arlington, Virginia, US.