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Huawei takes the flexible approach to WiMAX and 4G

Announces end-to-end product roadmap

Huawei took a keen interest in WiMAX from an early stage, but concrete results were slow to follow, until now, when it has announced an end-to-end product roadmap, and started to show up in operators’ shortlists — most recently, up against Alcatel-Lucent with Summa Telecom in Russia.

The Chinese giant has a home market where the future position for WiMAX — or indeed any advanced wireless technology — is highly uncertain, with the government still backing homegrown standards like TD-SCDMA for 3G and McWLL and FuTure Network for broadband wireless. This has undoubtedly been one factor in driving a strategy at Huawei that involves keeping as many platform options open as possible, though with the minimal impact on R&D and execution costs, given the equipment maker’s strong reputation for aggressive pricing. The other is the need, given the state of flux in its native market, to accelerate the successful recent push to increase its percentage of sales from outside China as pre-4G evolves.

To support these aims, Huawei has adopted a roadmap that echoes that of other pressurized base station makers, notably Nortel and Motorola — one that seeks to devise a universal architecture that can be adapted with minimal expense and effort for any major standard. Like Motorola — which claims R&D overlap of up to 85% between Mobile WiMAX and LTE, because of common elements such as OFDM and MIMO — Huawei says it has come up with a unified infrastructure that could be modified for HSPA, LTE, UMB and Mobile WiMAX. It is also going head-to-head, with its New Generation range, with Nokia Siemens’ Flexi base station approach, promising a single architecture that can not only be adapted quickly for one RAN technology or another, but will in future be able to support several networks simultaneously.

New Generation incorporates some pre-4G elements such as MIMO smart antenna arrays and HARQ (Hybrid Automatic Repeat-reQuest) to improve performance and spectral efficiency. Huawei claims these features and its integration of multiple Rans leads to a typical 30% reduction in opex and capex compared to conventional base stations, with twice the capacity. There are Node B formats for indoor use, macro nodes, distributed nodes and picostations. All these formats are now available for WiMAX and nearly all the UMTS band options available worldwide. Huawei was the first to support the recently auctioned US band AWS (1.7GHz and 2.1GHz), and also offers UMTS in 850MHz, 900MHz, 1.7GHz, 1.8GHz, 1.9GHz and 2.1GHz. The WiMAX range also includes gateways, transmission, network management systems and terminals. 802.16e can be integrated with GSM, CDMA, IMS and DSL networks using the system.

Huawei has promised its own WiMAX handsets next year, but is also seeking to create a wider ecosystem at the terminal and core ends, in order to position itself against the suppliers, such as NSN and Samsung, that also have cellphones to offer. It recently boasted of interoperability testing activities with NextWave Wireless, which is creating an 802.16e terminal chipset, and which is building out some of its own WiMAX networks in its spectrum in the US and elsewhere, using Huawei kit.

The Chinese company is also working closely with Taiwanese terminal manufacturers such as ZyXel, Alpha Networks and Quanta.

Huawei’s early moves in WiMAX have been focused heavily on Japan, where auctions of 2.5GHz spectrum will be held soon. The Chinese vendor completed trials with Reinan Cable Network and Beam Planning in Japan earlier this year, as part of the u-Japan Plan, a government initiative to boost seamless broadband coverage throughout the country by 2010. It also agreed that Oki would sell Huawei’s WiMAX products in Japan, and the two companies are collaborating on developing WiMAX/Wi-Fi converters, embedded modules and femtocells.

Outside Japan and China, Huawei says it has now installed Mobile WiMAX networks, at least in pilot phases, for six service providers — Summa, Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobilink of Pakistan, MTN and Vodacom in South Africa, and NextWave.

At home, it may have longer to wait to see which 3G and 4G standards become important sources of revenue, hence the flexible approach — Huawei is likely to become a major supplier of any platform it can support, with Chinese base station vendors so far defending their home territory far more effectively against incomers than handset suppliers. Early this year, it appeared that the Chinese authorities would make it hard for 802.16e to gain a major foothold (though fixed WiMAX is popular in the country). However, in August it was confirmed that Mobile WiMAX would play a role in the technology infrastructure for the Beijing Olympics, the greatest showcase in the country to date for emerging communications systems — although the official line continues to be that the Chinese technologies are superior, and China voted against the recent ITU decision to put 802.16e on the approved list of networks for IMT-2000.

Wan Yi, director of the wireless and mobile department at the China Communications Standards Association (CCSA), said in a recent statement that approval of WiMAX as an IMT-2000 technology would “unbalance” the mobile industry, and that is has been politically driven by the US government in a bid to promote a US-dominated platform in a sector where American vendors have not always held the reins.

Despite this, the WiMAX community remains guardedly optimistic about making inroads in the complex Chinese market. The WiMAX Forum has been working with the Chinese Academy of Telecommunications Research (CATR) to commercialize the technology, but this is at a very early stage, and to date, the Ministry of Information Industry has not allocated spectrum for 802.16e, nor announced plans to do so (fixed WiMAX has been used in some deployments in 3.5GHz).

The main hope for WiMAX in the short term rests with China’s urgent need to turn the 2008 Beijing Olympics into a major showcase for its hi-tech and communications capabilities. This need will push the authorities to approve any system that can deliver impressive results, and so far TD-SCDMA has been disappointing, as have other homegrown technologies, such as mobile TV, that were originally earmarked for use at the Games.

Hence, China Mobile has been authorized to build a WiMAX network for the Olympics, while China Netcom had its license to build a wireless broadband network in Beijing cancelled. Netcom had planned to use one of China’s own alternatives to WiMAX, McWLL (Multicarrier Wireless internet Local Loop, which runs in the 400MHz band and combines S-CDMA with an IP-based core network, using CS-OFDMA adaptive modulation, and boosting performance with dynamic channel allocation and smart antennas. Despite its spectral efficiency, it lacks proven track record or ecosystem, and the Olympic organizers now seem keen to supplement TD-SCDMA with lower risk broadband wireless standards. The Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee has accredited China Mobile to provide WLan and WiMAX service for the Olympics.

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