Industry Standards for Fixed Wireless; Who?s Winning?
By Heidi Kriz, Mon Feb 26 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Companies eager to capitalize on wireless' potential are caught between two approaches: Get out there first with a proprietary system, or wait for standards bodies to ensure compatibility.

"(Fixed Wireless) standards are good if done correctly, but mostly they stifle innovation," recently commented Peter Soltesz, senior director of network architectures at Winstar.

"Standardization is key to making (fixed wireless) readily available to the public as an alternative Internet connection," counters Roger Marks, chairman of the Standards Board of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE).

The swords have been drawn and even brandished, in the battle over the necessity of standards for fixed wireless broadband. But it appears like the army on the side of standardization is winning, if recent events are anything to go by.

The case for standards

Last month, the IEEE, which has been the authoritative source for standards in other areas of technology, like the Ethernet, announced their new standards initiative for fixed wireless.

The purpose of the initiative is to draft a unified air-interface standard with a common, interoperable medium access control (MAC) platform that will support multiple, spectrum-dependent physical layers (PHYs). At the end of January, the group recently approved a plan for the first stage (the 10 to 66ghz PHY layer and supporting MAC).

The IEEE's overseer group, known as 8.16, also has a subgroup concentrating on standards for the parts of the radio spectrum that are license exempt - specifically, 5-6 Ghz bands. This subgroup is known as the WirelessHUMAN group, which stands for Wireless High-Speed Unlicensed Metropolitan Area Networks.

It is this band that is considered the portion with the greatest potential for commercial development in the area of fixed wireless.

"Unlicensed spectrum is a huge worldwide market opportunity for fixed broadband wireless access, because it may be deployed by any operator without the delay and cost of acquiring a license," says 802.16 Chair Roger Marks.

"Standardization is key to making this technology readily available to the public as an alternative Internet connection. Because of the special considerations of unlicensed spectrum, we needed to establish a project separate from our existing work on metropolitan area network standards in the licensed bands" Marks says.

Conflict in the field

In fact it's the huge commercial potential for fixed wireless that has stirred up so much controversy about the issue of standards.

Traditionally standardization has often been a long, drawn out process, with a great deal of bureaucratic swampiness to wade through. Sometimes the development of technology would outpace the consensus on the standard. This is what happened for example, when the IEEE endeavored to develop standards for the cable modem industry.

"It took seven years from start to finish to produce a cable modem standard," recalls Dr. Durga Satapathy, Chair of IEEE's 802.16 subgroup, WirelessHUMAN.

"By the time it came out, many of the smaller cable companies had gone out of business, because they weren't able to absorb the impact and cost of having to wait so long to develop their product within the standards, and remain competitive with the bigger companies," says Satapathy.

On the other hand, there have been some great successes with standardization. One such success was with the Ethernet.

"The Ethernet standard is perhaps the most widely used and most popular, and has really fomented its development and use," says Satapathy.

Another criticism often leveled at the effort to standardize technologies, is that it stifles creativity.

Satapathy claims that often the opposite is true.

"In fact, because the IEEE is open to everyone, and groups of people from different corporations and interest weigh-in, we bounce off of and build off of each others pre-existing work and discoveries. It saves time in getting the bugs out. And it's a very lively and fertile backdrop," says Satapathy.

Interestingly, this view of standardization is echoed by one of the great, early pioneers of the Internet, Vincent Cerf.

"I'm a proponent of the jujitsu method of innovation. Jujitsu teaches you to take advantage of your opponent's momentum. I like to take advantage of what already exists and then use it to advance an application into the mainstream," says Cerf.

Cerf and his colleague Robert Kahn were responsible for creating TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), a set of standards that serves as the common language of the Internet.

"When Robert Kahn and I were creating TCP/IP, we decided not to require the networks that support it to change in any way. Instead, we took advantage of what already existed, and we avoided adding another layer of complexity," Cerf has said previously to the media about his invention.

On the subject of standards itself, Cerf is adamant.

"People often take the view that standardization is the enemy of creativity. But I think that standards help make creativity possible - by allowing for the establishment of an infrastructure, which then leads to enormous entrepreneurialism, creativity and competitiveness," says Cerf.

And, it also leads to big consumer benefits, according to another member of the IEEE's WirelessHUMAN group, Dean Chang.

"Through the interoperability of products through standards, production costs are lowered, and then passed onto the consumer," says Chang.

In the case of fixed wireless standards, that means that providers of fixed wireless broadband access will be able to pass on savings to their customers by potentially lowering the cost of the "subscriber unit," of the service, for example, from $1000 to $500 and under.

"What will differentiate for consumers between provider companies will most likely be cost," says Chang.

"And what is likely to happen to a company that chooses to be first out of the gate, versus waiting for an industry standard, is that they are likely to get wiped out by the competition when the standard comes out," he says.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.