Motorola exec sees room for WiMax and LTE to thrive

In long term, Motorola to focus more on video technologies running over 4G, says wireless chief

Despite debate over whether WiMax or LTE technology would win out as the basis for faster 4G wireless networks, Motorola Inc. is now convinced that both protocols will flourish.

That recognition means Motorola is working aggressively to sell equipment to provision both WiMax and LTE networks when carriers commit to one or the other, said Bruce Brda, who was recently installed as general manager of wireless networks for the equipment maker.

"The LTE versus WiMax debate took place a couple of years ago ... but in my mind, [carrier] customers we talk to today aren't debating anymore," Brda said in an interview with Computerworld. "Customers know what technology they want before we have a conversation."

Bruce Brda
Bruce Brda, Motorola general manager of wireless networks

Currently, Brda said WiMax is the technology of choice for the new wireless carriers that predominate in emerging markets mainly outside the U.S. The notable exception is Clearwire Inc., which has financial backing from Sprint Nextel Inc. and others, in the U.S.

Meanwhile, LTE was chosen by "traditional wireless carriers" including Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. in the U.S., he said. Verizon is expecting to begin deployments of LTE next year with full rollouts in 2012. Brda called Verizon's plan an example of how LTE in the U.S. will be about two years behind WiMax, but then quickly catch up.

Motorola is already provisioning WiMax networks for Clearwire in 18 U.S. markets, with base station equipment, antennas and client equipment, such as laptop dongles and customer premise equipment that can distribute a WiMax signal from outside throughout a home or office, Brda said.

As part of its WiMax effort, Motorola is already running an interoperability laboratory in Taiwan to test third-party WiMax devices, he said. These devices include dongles, traditional wireless phones, smartphones and even machine-to-machine devices that can be used, for example, to monitor thousands of utility meters, replacing the need for meter reader crews.

Brda wouldn't say which manufacturer's smartphones are being tested for WiMax, but said some are Asia-based device makers and some are more recognizable vendors in the U.S. Samsung is considered the most interested in developing WiMax smartphones, according to several analysts. It's too early for LTE interoperability testing on devices, Brda added.

Brda couldn't say whether Motorola would develop its own WiMax-based smartphone since the company is planning to spin off its consumer handset division. The spinoff, however, has been delayed by the recession and related economic factors. (Motorola's consumer handsets division chief Sanjay Jha is committed to launching many new Android smartphones in the next year, even while saying the spinoff of the division is still planned.)

Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney said in an e-mail that he doubted Motorola would develop a WiMax smartphone because the company "is stressed to get back on track, and you don't take on risks like that now."

Most of the questions analysts have raised over Motorola stem from the company's consumer handset division and not the wireless networks division, which Brda heads "As a business [division], we're doing well and are a significant profit producer, healthy and in a very stable state," Brda said.

Motorola committed to backing both WiMax and LTE technologies more than a year ago and has seen the wisdom of its move.

Brda said that there is a 70% "re-use" of its investment in WiMax research and development and production dollars with LTE gear, notably in the baseband control unit (BCU), a specialized computer that is deployed in the base stations with both protocols.

While both the WiMax and LTE radio interfaces will continue separately in parallel for years to come, Motorola's BCU2 technology used in WiMax deployments is being modified into BCU3 technology for LTE, he said.

"As we rollout LTE, the hardware will be based on third generation WiMax products, which is proven and field-hardened," he said.

Brda wouldn't say how many Motorola workers are actively developing WiMax and LTE products, but said R&D for WiMax and LTE is in the "hundreds of millions of dollars" annually.

Brda's oversight of the wireless networks division of Motorola encompasses more areas than the name implies and includes all the WiMax client devices. As such, he is keenly aware of competitors with broad market reach, including Siemens, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei. So far, networking giant Cisco Systems is not seen as a direct LTE or WiMax competitor since it dominates in network core technologies with less emphasis on radio technologies.

However, Cisco is a big competitive threat against Motorola on video technologies, Brda noted.

Motorola might not be easily recognized as a video equipment maker, although it purchased General Instrument Corp., a maker of semiconductors and cable television equipment, more than a decade ago, he noted. The acquisition gave Motorola technology expertise into video distribution technology, as well as set-top devices and even quality of service software and digital rights management software and policies, he said.

"Video is a sweet spot for Motorola with the coming of 4G, and even with 3G," Brda said. "The primary consumer of networks is YouTube, for instance. It's a huge driver."

While Brda wasn't specific on directions that Motorola might take with video, he implied it will be important: "As 4G standard and high-definition video comes to homes and mobile devices, what you'll see with Motorola, as we roll out 4G, is that we will try to leverage our other company assets to provide more compelling experiences."

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