WiMax counts as 3G, ITU says

The ITU has approved WiMax as an official 3G technology.

WiMax earned an important seal of approval last week when the Radiocommunication Sector of the International Telecommunication Union certified it as a 3G (third-generation) mobile data technology.

Heavily promoted by Intel and sometimes criticized as overhyped, WiMax is based on industry standards but has been the young upstart in the telecommunications industry. With this week's decision in Geneva by the radio group, also called ITU-R, it can finally rub shoulders with widely deployed technologies such as WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) and CDMA-2000.

Many governments dictate technologies when they allocate wireless spectrum, and they typically look to the ITU, which is affiliated with the United Nations, to say what technologies qualify. WiMax will now be one of their choices when faced with a requirement for 3G, which the ITU calls IMT-2000.

"Having the ITU say that it counts really opens up some opportunities," said Peter Jarich of Current Analysis Inc. In particular, carriers that participate in upcoming auctions in Europe may choose WiMax instead of the more established 3G systems, he said. Broader deployments of WiMax in Europe, which has seen a few rollouts so far, would help increase production volumes and in turn lower equipment prices worldwide, according to Jarich.

The ITU-R approval is a victory for advocates of technology neutrality, who want carriers to have more choices for high-speed wireless deployments, Jarich said. In most parts of the world, 3G is dominated by WCDMA, the next step on the migration path from GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). But the ITU-R has also recognized CDMA-2000, the 3G upgrade to CDMA networks, and TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous Code-Division Multiple Access), developed in China, as well as other technologies.

"To have WiMax approved as an IMT-2000 technology is a huge win for the WiMax Forum," said Ron Resnick, president of the WiMax Forum, the industry group that certifies interoperability of products using the technology.

What the standards body actually voted to support was OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing), which forms the basis of WiMax today but is also set to power future technologies, including LTE (Long-Term Evolution), a system now under development as the next step in the GSM migration path. Commercial LTE deployment is expected in 2009 or 2010.

WiMax, based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, is designed to deliver IP (Internet Protocol) data traffic at multiple megabits per second over a range of several kilometers. A fixed version is already certified by the WiMax Forum industry group, which plans to start certifying interoperability among mobile products next year. Sprint Nextel and Clearwire plan to deploy WiMax in markets across the US starting late this year in what is set to be the biggest rollout yet.

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Stephen Lawson

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