The future of mobile broadband has arrived -- in Korea

Korea's WiMax-like system provides faster, cheaper wireless broadband

The next time you're on the road and either can't find a Wi-Fi hot spot or it seems to take forever to download an important file via 3G, imagine you're in Seoul, South Korea. That's because Seoul's wireless WiBro network is nirvana for traveling professionals.

WiBro is a branded version of the same 802.16e-2005 WiMax standard that is coming to the U.S. In Korea, it delivers data three times faster than 3G networks, with typical download speeds as high as 6Mbit/sec.

"WiBro supplies much faster speeds [than 3G] for mobile users," says Unkoo Lee, manager of the WiBro planning department at Korea Telecom (KT). Besides being an employee of one of the Korean telecom operators that offers WiBro, Lee also is a regular user of the service. He says he uses it for e-mail, browsing the Web and creating content for the Internet, all while miles from his office.

Advocates say that WiBro and WiMax are game-changers for mobile professionals.

"WiBro can change the way mobile professionals work," claims Ron Resnick, president of the Beaverton, Ore.-based WiMax Forum, a trade organization comprised primarily of WiMax-related vendors. "They don't need to return to the office to load up on data. They can stay on the road longer and get more done."

Despite business difficulties related to its cellular business, Sprint Nextel Corp. says it still plans to start rolling out its nationwide WiMax network this year. So looking at Korea's experience with WiBro could be a good indicator of what we can expect in the U.S.

Off to a slow start

Despite the optimism of WiMax supporters, the jury is still out about whether WiBro will become a widespread success in Korea. It was first deployed in pockets of Seoul two years ago. It's now available in Busan, Daeieo, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan, as well as at 17 Korean universities.

The service has not grown quickly. Offered by SK Telecom (SKT) and KT, WiBro had only 1,000 users a year after it was introduced.

"The system lacked devices and coverage," notes Derek Kerton, principal of The Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm. "It was the equivalent of a loud yawn."

However, by the end of 2007, the two carriers combined for about 130,000 subscribers, according to IDC Korea. Based on KT reports, 60% of WiBro's subscribers are mobile business people, 25% are college students and the rest are a broad mix of other interested users.

The market research firm says those subscription numbers will increase significantly as coverage increases and as more WiMax-ready devices come to market. In particular, SKT and KT plan to cover 80 Korean cities by the end of 2008. As a result, IDC Korea forecasts that WiBro will have between 3.9 million and 5 million subscribers by 2011.

Faster, cheaper service

Kerton notes that, from both a marketing and technical perspective, WiBro still faces steep challenges, but it also has huge potential, primarily because it is cheaper and faster than 3G.

One of the most notable challenges, according to Kerton, is that, like all wireless technologies, WiMax can give you either long range or top speed, but not both at once. As with Wi-Fi, the closer you are to the transmitter, the faster the connection.

With WiMax, if you are next to a base station and are the only user on the network, and all other conditions are optimal, which is a rare set of circumstances, you theoretically could see download speeds of 60Mbit/sec.

In the real world, typical speeds of 3Mbit/sec. to 10Mbit/sec. are commonplace in South Korea, with 6Mbit/sec. being common, according to KT's Lee. While that's only one-tenth of the theoretical maximum speed, it's still significantly faster than the current generation of 3G, which provides typical speeds of 1Mbit/sec., depending on conditions.

Another advantage WiBro and WiMax have over 3G is price. With WiBro's range, it takes about 25 towers to cover 50 square miles, roughly half as many as are required by 3G technologies such as EV-DO or HSDPA, according to the WiMax Forum's Resnick. In other words, carriers need fewer base stations to cover the same area with higher throughput.

That translates to lower prices for end users. KT's WiBro Free plan costs about $24 a month and offers unlimited use. By contrast, a premium plan for the slower 3G HSDPA network in Korea costs $45 a month and limits monthly downloads to 4GB of data; after that, each megabyte costs 12 cents.

Sprint's precise pricing plans aren't known, but it has said that its WiMax service, which it will call Xohm, will be less expensive and have fewer limitations than 3G. Top 3G service plans in the U.S. typically cost about $60 with limitations on downloads. Verizon Wireless, for instance, limits downloads to 5GB a month.

Migrating to the U.S.

Besides Korea, WiMax technology is currently being tested in Italy, Pakistan, Venezuela, Taiwan, Brazil and Japan and, of course, in the U.S. Here, Sprint Nextel has committed to using its broad swath of spectrum in the 2.5-GHz range for the network.

Sprint's network is currently in closed testing in Chicago, Washington and Baltimore. In addition, the company has said it will soon start building out the network for the general public throughout the U.S. The buildout is expected to continue through 2009.

"This is our 4G technology," explained Peter Cannistra, vice president for partner development for Xohm.

Unlike Korea, where few devices were available at first, Sprint says a wide variety of devices will be available when the service is launched widely. The company is working with Motorola, Samsung, Nokia, among others, to bring WiMax-ready devices to market. Those three companies are motivated to bring WiMax-ready devices to market because they are also providing the infrastructure equipment Sprint is using to build out the network.

"We're going to have video phones, Internet tablets and notebook cards from the start," says Rick Svensson, director of sales for WiMax systems at Samsung Telecommunications America. "WiMax gives us the bandwidth to do amazing things."

In addition, Lenovo is adding mobile WiMax chips to its super-slim ThinkPad X300. However, other vendors remain on the fence about WiMax, although a big boost could come later this year when Intel's Montevina chip set comes out. With built-in support for WiMax, supporters hope that Montevina does for WiMax what Centrino did for Wi-Fi -- make it ubiquitous.

A potential game-changer

Even though the jury is still out in Korea, proponents believe Sprint's WiMax service could be a real game-changer in the U.S. That's because, in addition to being faster and cheaper than 3G, Sprint has said it will do away with traditional long-term contracts required of most cellular subscribers.

"We're looking at subscriptions, not contracts," says Cannistra. "It won't be like buying a phone." In other words, Sprint has said it's open to things such as daily rates and the ability to use multiple devices with a single account.

However, implicit in Sprint's approach is that the company won't subsidize the price of user devices, a practice that has resulted in a flood of low-cost cellular phones in the U.S. In other words, devices used on the WiMax network will be more expensive than users may be accustomed to, although that lack of subsidization gives those users more flexibility. Still, device price issues could slow adoption of WiMax, some observers believe.

In addition, for Sprint to be successful, Kerton says it must get up and running soon.

"They have a narrow window of opportunity to make this work," Kerton says. He predicts that Xohm needs to be complete and operational by 2009 to succeed.

That would give the company roughly a two-year lead on its competitors, who are unlikely to roll out next-generation wireless broadband until at least 2011. That's because the technology Verizon Wireless and AT&T are likely to adopt, Long Term Evolution, won't be ready until at least that year. By contrast, WiMax is ready now.

While Sprint has previously said it expects the network to be largely completed by the end of 2009, Cannistra wouldn't provide more details, although more information about that is expected from the company soon. Still, even using Sprint's existing transmission towers to house the WiMax equipment, it will take at least 18 months to complete the network nationwide and will cost an estimated $5 billion, observers claim.

Another potential stumbling block is that Sprint has been losing profitability and subscribers from its cellular service and is under pressure from investors and Wall Street to not invest $5 billion needed to create a nationwide WiMax network. As a result, Sprint has reportedly renewed partnership talks with another, but smaller, WiMax company, Clearwire Corp. It also was recently reported to be talking with cable giants Comcast and Time-Warner Cable about those companies taking a stake in the Xohm venture.

"That only makes sense," says Kerton. "The cable companies have been looking for a reliable wireless network that they can bundle with their cable service. This would be a strategic investment for them."

So Sprint must overcome business and technological hurdles before WiMax can be positioned for success. And it must do so relatively quickly. Even at that, a look at the equivalent network in Korea doesn't provide a definitive answer as to whether WiMax can succeed in the U.S., Kerton says.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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