The Road to Mobile Broadband Runs Through Korea
By David James, Mon Nov 15 08:00:00 GMT 2004

South Korea’s WiBro will be the first large network to test the promise of mobile WiMAX.

Koreans have long been leaders in adopting and developing mobile communications, but they have an old saying: “Test even a stone bridge before crossing it.” So it is fitting that their planned mobile broadband access system, called WiBro (for wireless broadband), will be the first country-wide network to serve as a testing ground for what may become the leading international technology for mobile broadband: mobile WiMAX.

WiMAX is the name now given to that set of technologies sponsored by the WiMAX Forum and based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 802.16 family of technology standards for broadband wireless access. IEEE 802.16 is for fixed access, and 802.16e is for mobile access. Both use a form of OFDM transmission, rather than CDMA. The objective of WiMAX and its supporters is to promote global compatibility and inter-operability of broadband wireless access equipment for fixed, portable and mobile connectivity.

WiBro was first conceived as a Korean technology standard called HPi (for high-speed portable Internet), in which Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, SK Telecom and KT Corporation had invested heavily. However, as a Korean standard rivaling WiMAX’s 802.16e, it presented barriers to non-Korean developers and manufacturers, requiring Korea to convince the rest of the world to adopt its standard. As a result, Korea brought an end to HPi earlier this year, agreeing to use the 802.16e standard for WiBro.

Banking on Mobility

The promise of WiBro and mobile WiMAX is that they will deliver mobility with the high speed and cost-effectiveness of an all-IP, all-packetized data system, offering users things like streaming video and music, video and music on demand, online gaming, broadcasting and VoIP. With mobile WiMAX, the cost of a given bundle of data will be low because there will be no circuit-switching in the system and because of the fundamental efficiencies of OFDM vs. CDMA, though WiBro won’t support high ground speeds – it’s designed to provide seamless connectivity over the 2.3 GHz spectrum at ground speeds up to about 60 Kph with an average bandwidth of 1 Mbps.

According to Professor Dong-Ho Cho of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and project manager of mobile telecommunications at Korea’s Ministry of Information and Communication, WiBro is intended as an evolutionary system. “Ground speed is a trade-off with data speed, and both are limited by the cell-site parameters. At the outset, we do not want to burden the system unduly, nor do we want WiBro to compete immediately with the 2.5G and 3G networks. We will test the system and improve data speed and connectivity over time,” he says.

Winning with WiBro

Who will benefit most from WiBro? First, Korean mobile Internet users, who will be among the first to enjoy mobile broadband connectivity. Second, Korean manufacturers such as Samsung, a strong supporter of WiBro. They will be able to test and perfect 802.16e communications equipment and applications for a global mobile WiMAX market. Third, non-Korean equipment manufacturers such as Intel and Fujitsu, plus chipset designers and application developers. Through collaborations, they will be able to test and develop their products for the global market. Fourth, WiMAX itself, in perfecting the 802.16e standard.

A good example of a non-Korean company that will benefit from WiBro is TeleCIS Wireless, a fabless semiconductor firm based in Santa Clara, California. The company, which has a strategic alliance with Samsung and KT Corporation, is focused on developing integrated multi-protocol wireless broadband chipsets, and it is positioning itself to be a leading provider of chipsets with flexible interfaces for a variety of markets, applications and devices. “We are very interested in WiBro and mobile WiMAX,” says David Sumi, vice president marketing of TeleCIS Wireless and also secretary of the WiMAX Forum. “TeleCIS’s first product will be a dedicated 802.16 WiMAX-compliant fixed access chip. This will be followed rapidly by a dual-mode -- fixed and mobile -- WiMAX chip for notebooks, PDAs, handsets and other devices. Following that, we will introduce a tri-mode product for fixed and mobile WiMAX, plus the WLAN 802.11-a, -b and -g protocols, all in a single chip.”

Distance Vision

It’s a good thing that TeleCIS is planning well into the future, because mobile broadband will not be a commercial reality anytime soon. Korea plans to issue three licenses for WiBro service in early 2005, probably to KT Corporation, SK Telecom and Hanaro Telecom. Commercial service is expected to begin in 2006, but it will be another two years before all Korean cities have the service. By then, officials project that WiBro will have 10 million subscribers.

The real growth for fixed WiMAX will come in developing countries that have little competing infrastructure, while that of mobile WiMAX will most likely be in countries where sophisticated users will expect broadband everywhere, says Sumi. “China, India and less developed countries will be especially big markets.”

Even with the help of Korea’s WiBro, it is not certain that WiMAX’s 802.16e standard will win the mobile broadband sweepstakes. Other mobile broadband standards and technologies might prevail, for example the IEEE 802.20 standard promoted by Flarion Technologies and the time-division-duplex technology promoted by IPWireless. However, WiMAX currently has the momentum and is supported by a long list of industry heavyweights, a list recently joined by Navini Networks, an early backer of 802.20.

With WiMAX momentum on its side, Korea’s WiBro is beginning to look like a stone bridge. But it will take a lot of testing to cross to the mobile broadband side.