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Sprint looks increasingly isolated as it quits NGMN Alliance

August 14, 2008
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A feature of the emerging generation of mobile broadband standards is that the major operators have seized the steering wheel, and are determined to ensure the technologies are optimized for their commercial needs. The most powerful body coordinating the operators' activities is the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) Alliance, which numbers 18 carrier members and works with a wide range of other bodies. When it was first formed, it seemed to be a force for unity across the industry, able to support more than one RAN technology, and bring various 4G contenders within a common umbrella of patents policies, performance tests and interoperability systems. But now the operators are descending into the same politics that have often delayed or fragmented standards over which the vendors have ruled, and the clearest signal is that the Alliance has selected just one technology — LTE — as its preferred new generation network, and this has prompted WiMAX' greatest supporter, Sprint Nextel, to quit the Alliance.

The developments dampen hopes for a near term convergence of WiMAX and LTE into a single mobile broadband standard for the run-up to 4G, although the Alliance did indicate, when it made its LTE selection earlier this month, that it would assess WiMAX again in its next iteration, 802.16m. This suggests strongly that WiMAX and LTE could remain separate for the current generation and then come more closely together at the 16m/LTE 2 stage, in a few years' time, assuming that both technologies have strong market positions by then.

However, in the short term, the NGMN Alliance has clearly become an LTE supporters' club, and reinforced this by forming a close interworking collaboration with the GSMA, the main representative of the GSM and UMTS communities, which see LTE as their natural future path.

Sprint said it ended its relationship with the Alliance after the group chose to endorse LTE because the body was supposed to endorse the coexistence of various technologies without favoring just one, and that technology neutrality was a key tenet when it co-founded the Alliance, in order to avoid duplication of work by existing standards bodies. "Sprint was disappointed that NGMN shifted from its original technology neutral stance," said a spokesperson. The other founder operators were China Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone, Orange, KPN and T-Mobile, all of them planning to make LTE their major next generation network, at least in their heartland territories. Most of the other 12 carrier members also back LTE, and even those that have major WiMAX plans, like Tata and KDDI, did not fight too hard to retain WiMAX or the technology neutral strategy, suggesting they will take an interest in LTE too.

All this could be another blow to the chances of Mobile WiMAX gaining a prominent position in the mobile carrier market, driving it further towards sectors where it has a headstart over LTE, or where LTE activities have not been focused — such as fixed line operators moving to quad play, or fixed/nomadic access for underserved areas. There is little doubt that WiMAX will amass a significant presence in these markets, but the odds look increasingly poor in the 3G heartlands.

This leaves Sprint Nextel virtually isolated as a tier one carrier with a truly '4G' vision of mobile broadband based on WiMAX. This in turns means that its interests are not represented by the mainstream operator bodies, which could hamper its roll-out of new technologies, for instance by reducing the confidence of device makers in 802.16e. It also means that Sprint's influence over the WiMAX Forum is disproportionately high, because of its poster child role, and while it is important to Sprint to ensure that the Forum's agenda is geared to its commercial needs as it prepares to merge its WiMAX unit with Clearwire, its dominance is also alienating some smaller carriers, whose voice may not be heard in the Forum. The main exceptions are KT and British Telecom, the first because of its roll-out of Wi-Bro in Korea, the latter because it represents WiMAX' best hope for gaining a tier one European carrier (though only if BT acquires a 2.6GHz license, by no means a foregone conclusion).

The burden on the 'new Clearwire' will be immense — its roll-out and the real world performance of its technology and its services strategy will be closely watched and a major factor in deciding whether or not the mobile operator community gains confidence in WiMAX again, perhaps taking a renewed interest at the 802.16m stage.

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