India has seen rapid technological growth in recent times, especially in the areas of information technology and communication. Telecommunication has led the charge in the area of consumer technology with rapid penetration of mobile telephony amongst the masses. India is already one of the largest consumers of mobile phones, with an average nine million users being added every month. The telecom tariff rates offered in India are among the lowest in the world.
3G and WiMAX are the latest inclusions to the mobile and internet communication fold, promising to take user-experience to a higher level through interactivity, greater convenience, improved access, and quality of services offered. This article aims to capture the essence of these two technologies, analyze their impact on communication, and to conduct a comparative assessment of relevance, and hence acceptability, of the two to the masses.
Launch of 3G in India
Doors have opened for the much awaited 3G service in India. The introduction of advanced telecommunication services was proposed in the tenth five year plan, paving the way for funding and resource allocation for 3G services in the annual budget of the Department of Telecommunication (DoT). The electronic auctioning of the 3G spectrum is planned and done. This fresh initiative should pave the way for a wide range of products and mobile services being made available to the Indian consumer. 3G will facilitate high-speed internet access through mobile phones and provide mobility to a large number of services such as video conferencing, gaming, and large downloads.
The 2.1 GHz band has be auctioned for launching 3G services in India. License winners are expected to roll out 3G services in 90 per cent of metro areas and 50 per cent in other areas given to them (with a minimum 15 per cent rural coverage). This coverage is expected by the end of the fifth year, after spectrum allocation.
The 450 MHz band is currently being utilized for radio communication, while the 800 and 1,900 MHz bands are used for military communication purposes. They will be auctioned when they become free.
What is 3G?
“Third Generation wireless telecommunication technology”, or 3G, is an advanced radio communication technology which provides a marriage of high-speed internet access and high-quality mobile telephony. The technology enables simultaneous voice and non-voice data transfer.
1-G technology involves the use of analogue radio signals for communication. Voice data is modulated to a high frequency (usually beyond 150 MHz) for transmission. Information transfer between telephone towers takes place in the form of digital signals.
2-G differs from 1-G in the use of digital voice signals for communication. The analogue voice data is encoded into digital signals for transmission.
How does 3G compare with the available technology?
3G is a substantial enhancement over the current 2G technology, and is capable of facilitating high-speed internet access and data transfer. Adoption of 3G in India would involve substantial improvement in the existing cell phones to be able to support 3G services. The idea of launching 2.5G services was also considered due to the difficulty of moving over from 2G to 3G. But the delay in launching advanced telecom services and launch of phones with 3G capabilities made the choice easier.
High speed digital packet switching networks are the source of the high speed offered by 3G. Compared to the traditional circuit switching technology, packet switching offers better transmission bandwidth utilization, and hence higher data transfer rates. Additionally, advance multiplexing techniques add to network speed.
What changes can be expected due to 3G?
The emergence of 3G is likely to act as catalyst for enhanced product and services. Creative solutions evolving around user benefits are expected to emerge.
- Quality of text, audio and video communication would improve through: (a) Technology supporting more real-time, and next to real quality communication (b) Enhanced mobility and roaming (c) High quality e-mail and internet access
- 3G would enable heavy video broadcast (video conferencing, video lectures and virtual classrooms, video sharing, etc.) and data-intensive services (such as online monitoring/ surveillance, e-commerce, online education, telemedicine, music/software/data download, online gaming, etc.)
- High-end, light, feature intensive, and easy-to use terminals would come into the market with creative interfaces designed to suit customer preferences.
How has been the acceptability in other countries?
Japan was the first country to test and implement 3G. The acceptability has been good for 3G there, with internet access, gaming and music download being some of the prominent applications. The objective of launching 3G in Japan and Korea was to develop an internal communication network and hence the access charges for service providers were kept low, resulting in low 3G charges on consumers, and hence greater popularity and acceptance. 3G has done well in most countries due to its good features. It has been successfully launched and is being operated in more than 50 countries currently.
On the other hand, the financial performance of 3G operators has been poor in some regions due to high debts on service providers or high-access charges; especially in Europe. The actual performance of 3G in most places has been lower than the specified speed standards and has caused dissatisfaction among consumers, leading to lower acceptance rates for the service.
What are the major concerns involving 3G?
3G rollout in many countries has resulted in factors hindering acceptance of service among consumers and profitability of service providers; India would do well to learn from them. Additionally, we foresee certain issues the operators are likely to face in India:
- High revenue expectations from 3G services resulted in high input fee/access charges levied on service providers for 3G service licenses.
- The price of 3G mobile services (including internet access) was kept excessively high in some countries, especially Europe, reducing the attractiveness of the 3G offering.
- Heavy upfront capital investment is required for developing local infrastructure capable of supporting 3G services in any country.
- 3G phones are more expensive compared to 2G and other lower-end phones, making the switch to 3G financially unfavorable for common consumers, especially in India.
- In India a substantial proportion of the population does not require 3G voice and data services in hand-held devices; this would limit the spread of 3G in the short term.
- Health impact of electromagnetic waves would always remain a cause for concern.
- There is a general lack of awareness about 3G services even among the educated population in India. It would take time for 3G services to pick up, as has been the case globally.
Organizations worldwide are involved in a race to develop the next level of wireless communication, and hence to grab and maintain a substantial market share. Some of the possible new areas of communication standard evolution can be:
- Universal networking: development of architectures and middleware that support universal networking between all communication devices leading to smooth communication and data/application transfer from one device to another.
- Customized services: the user would have the power over which function can be served by which device (one device acting as the central controller for all other devices the user owns, music being played on one device while video on another, etc.)
- Higher network speeds: with better bandwidth utilization and multiplexing technologies, network speeds are expected to go up, enabling on-the-fly data transfer from one device to another.
- Other auxiliary services: other features and services, such as heightened network security through Bluetooth device-based protection, identification services, information services customized to user preferences, centralized billing, etc. would come up with the evolution of communication technology.
- 4G: An upgrade over the current 3G system involving some advanced features, such as better spectrum utilization, greater network speed, more simultaneous users per cell phone, better inter-operability across heterogeneous networks, etc.
Launch of WiMAX in India
The stage is set for the launch of WiMAX in India with the finalization of dates for the auction of the 2.5 / 3 GHz spectrum by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT).
In a recent announcement, the India chapter of the WiMAX Forum has made public its plans to set up an applications lab at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi. In view of the high business potential of the Indian market, the WiMAX community places high importance on India; this is evident from the plan to set up this lab, only the third of its kind across the globe after USA and Taiwan.
According to the WiMAX forum, the market for WiMAX in India, which includes device and service sales, will reach $13 billion by the year 2012. The forum pegs the number of WiMAX users by 2012 at 27.5 million, an approximate 20 per cent share of the world’s total WiMAX user base at that time. According to independent research by Maravedis, a market research firm, the subscriber base for WiMAX in India is expected to reach 21 million by the year 2014.
Leading global WiMAX companies, such as Alcatel-Lucent, Motorola and Samsung, are starting their operations in India. Nokia has announced the launch of its first ever WiMAX enabled phone which is scheduled to be launched in India.
What is WiMAX?
WiMAX, or “Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access”, is a broadband wireless point-to-multipoint specification from the IEEE 802.16 working group, enabling wireless broadband networks with high speed. Leaps and bounds ahead of WiFi, WiMAX is designed to operate as a wireless metropolitan- area network.
WiMAX promises faster and superior performance, adaptability to various applications, advanced IP-based architecture (enabling integration of various applications with the internet) and reduced rates to consumers.
WiMAX supports a range of modulation algorithms to facilitate the realization of optimal bandwidth in all conditions. The theoretical maximum data bandwidth of 75Mbps can be achieved with WiMAX using 64QAM 3/4 modulation (only under optimal transmission conditions).
Fixed WiMAX is limited to providing wireless network access to fixed devices, a limitation eradicated by mobile WiMAX. WiMAX does not have the need for a direct line of sight between the source and endpoint of communication/ data transfer, unlike most other wireless technologies. Mobile WiMAX supports SOFDMA (Scalable Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), an enhancement over OFDMA256 which facilitates non-line-of-sight communication. SOFDMA also brings in better throughput and minimized sound fading in multiple path scenarios.
What are the key highlights of WiMAX?
WiMAX has some important features that have attracted the attention of the whole information and communication community ranging from internet operators and mobile telecom operators to fixed line telecom service providers, and so on. The attraction of possible gains in the future has brought many technology firms into the WiMAX fold:
- IP-based network: WiMAX specifications are developed over IP and support IP-based applications. The need to unify various communication networks and to cut costs has inspired firms globally to shift telephony to VoIP, enhancing the importance of WiMAX. The shift to IP-based network enables much easier and cheaper network monitoring and management with standard tools for telecom operators.
- Flatter and simpler topology: a data network by design, WiMAX has a simpler topology compared to cellular networks which have undergone layer additions to accommodate data transmission capabilities. WiMAX also requires less time and fewer hardware, investment and human resource to set up than traditional cellular/ Wi-Fi infrastructures, resulting in lower service costs for end users. WiMAX also provides the capability to scale up and down according to the application requirements.
- Adaptability to a wide range of applications: with its IP-based architecture, WiMAX supports a wide range of communication and data transfer applications. WiMAX also provides the possibility of transforming the way a large number of services such as internet, telephony, cable TV, etc. are currently provided to consumers.
- Inexpensive interface: the costs involved in migrating existing hardware to WiMAX are low, owing to the low prices of the required chipsets and interfacing devices.
Even though a large number of comparisons are made between WiMAX and WiFi, the similarities are limited when compared to the performance differences between these two technologies. WiMAX provides a wide range of advantages over Wi-Fi:
- Wider reach: Wi-Fi is short range (30-100 meters) compared to WiMAX, which provides a coverage radius of about 50 kms. This leads to Wi-Fi being limited to providing access only within a shop or a floor of a building, while WiMAX in comparison can cover much wider spaces.
- Optimal bandwidth utilization: advanced multiplexing provides better bandwidth utilization in WiMAX compared to WiFi.
- Higher speeds: Wi-Fi hotspots are typically backhauled over ADSL. Due to this, Wi-Fi access has poor upload speeds between the router and the internet compared to WiMAX. Additionally, no traffic prioritization leads to farther systems being made to wait longer than the ones close by in a Wi-Fi network. Proper scheduling in WiMAX standards takes care of this issue.
- Limited hardware and manpower requirement: to service an area covered by WiMAX using Wi-Fi networks would need a large number of hotspots to be created through routers. This necessitates a much higher manpower and hardware requirement for Wi- Fi compared to WiMAX which only requires a tower to be installed.
- Noise reduction: with stronger encryption/ modulation, WiMAX performs better in noisy conditions.
- Security: with enhanced encryption, WiMAX offers better security than Wi-Fi networks which have been notorious for security breaches.
The bandwidth, reach and IP-based topology of WiMAX make it suitable for a large number of potential applications. Some of the possible applications of WiMAX which stand to transform the way the whole information and communication business operates globally are:
- Shifting telephony to VoIP: globally, fixed line telecom players are losing market share to mobile operators. WiMAX provides an opportunity for these players to transform their cable-based systems to IP-based VoIP system and provide additional high-speed data services.
- Last mile broadband connectivity: WiMAX is the ideal technology for providing a wireless alternative to cable and DSL for last mile broadband access to direct consumers.
- Connecting remote locations: remote locations with limited telecom infrastructure and sparse populations can be financially infeasible when connected through physical wire based infrastructure. WiMAX provides a viable option to provide connectivity in these areas
- Connecting Wi-Fi hotspots: WiMAX can be used to connect various Wi-Fi hotspots with each other and to other parts of the internet.
- High speed data and telecom services: WiMAX specifications can be used by telecom operators to design high speed communication and data services for consumers.
- Providing Nomadic connectivity: Mobile WiMAX would make it possible to provide good connectivity to communication devices in motion.
- Connectivity systems for disaster situations: during disasters and calamities physical infrastructure can become damaged, limiting connectivity in critical situations. WiMAX connectivity can be vital in such conditions.
- Physical infrastructure substitution: high speed data backhaul through WiMAX can lead to the transformation of many data intensive services by the substitution of the physical hardware by wireless connectivity. For example, Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) can substitute traditional cable-based TV, backhaul for Wi-Fi hotspots can shift from DSL, evolution of mobile data TV, emergency response services, wireless backhaul as substitute for fiber-optic cable, etc.
Despite the mentioned advantages and the business potential, there are several potential issues and roadblocks for a WiMAX rollout in India:
- Spectrum Allocations Issues: globally, the rollout of WiMAX in many nations has been delayed due to the required frequency bands being occupied for other applications. The situation was similar in India with a substantial portion of the required frequency being used by the military. With the recently planned auctions for WiMAX the roadblocks seem to be lifting.
- Market downturn: due to the recent economic downturn, firms may find it difficult to pull in financial resources to make the necessary investments for WiMAX rollout.
- Other technologies: availability of existing technologies and required investments may deter many firms from making the shift to WiMAX. Additionally, the long delayed 3G would also compete for market share in India, possibly leading to restricted growth for WiMAX.
- Performance Issues: In addition, some of the frequencies utilized by WiMAX are subject to interference from rain fade. The unlicensed WiMAX frequencies are subject to RF interference from competing technologies and competing WiMAX networks.
Keeping in mind the technical superiority of WiMAX over other wireless networking technologies, the possibilities are rife that WiMAX would be used to develop higher generation data and communication technologies like 4G. For instance, the US based telecom firm Qualcomm has been pushing a standard for 4G known as 802.20, based on OFDMA, a multiplexing standard developed for WiMAX.
Further new technologies like 802.20 Mobile-Fi are expected to emerge challenging existing standards and providing better performance in terms of bandwidth, speed, reduced latency, encryption (noise reduction & security), et al.
3G vs. WiMAX
Comparison of existing wireless communication technologies
The communications space has seen an array of wireless technologies, each bringing in a new set of characteristics and raising performance standards. 3G, WiMAX, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, are the prominent ones.
In terms of data transmission capabilities, WiMAX leaves all the currently available wireless technologies far behind. LTE, a technology being backed by Ericsson, is similar to WiMAX and is expected to surpass WiMAX in terms of performance in future.
Comparison of 3G and WiMAX
Both 3G and WiMAX have been touted as the next big hopes for the communications sector and particularly telecommunications technology. Globally, 3G has been present in the market for a period of time and has acquired a market share, while WiMAX is still a very recent phenomenon which has had limited deployments across the globe. A comparative analysis of both follows:
- Existing infrastructure: in many nations large telecom players have invested heavily in 3G technology in the last few years, creating exit barriers for themselves. These players would find it economically unviable to shift to another technology such as WiMAX without having first gathered the fruits of their investments. But in India, with the delay in implementation of 3G, both WiMAX and 3G could start the race for market penetration on equal footing.
- Need: in a country like India where the penetration of broadband and dial-up has been limited due to the weak physical infrastructure, the need for newer technologies that could reduce costs and dependence on physical infrastructure, is even greater. While 3G is a strong technology, improving mobile communication standards substantially, it still trails behind advantages such as lower cost of last mile connectivity, limited dependence on physical infrastructure, faster networks, higher data hauling capabilities, limited data fade, and enhanced mobility, offered by WiMAX.
- Availability of supporting applications: In India most consumers still use phones, computers, laptops and other devices which do not support 3G or WiMAX. Due to talk of 3G being launched in India having been going on for some years, there are a number of 3G supporting phones now available in here, while the devices supporting WiMAX are yet to be launched in India. With big players such Nokia and IMB, supporting WiMAX in a big way and their plans for launching chips and gadgets supporting WiMAX in the near future, this issue will surely be taken care of.
- Cost of migration for consumers: As discussed, WiMAX is a relatively inexpensive technology being targeted for the masses by the big players. In the case of WiMAX, interfacing equipment is available helping old consumers shift to the new technology with their old hardware, and the cost for the transition is expected to be very low due to the low cost of related technology. Also, the cost of new hardware supporting WiMAX would be similar to that of their non-WiMAX versions. The same does not apply to 3G where most mobile phones supporting it are substantially expensive and require complete discard of old handsets.
- Telecom player’s perspective: (a) Fixed line: 3G is a threat for fixed line operators as it provides enhanced capabilities to the mobile operators, providing an opportunity for them to attract more consumers and take more market share away from fixed line. WiMAX provides an opportunity for fixed line players to improve their competitiveness through reduction of costs around the physical infrastructure, and improved performance capabilities by shifting to VoIP. (b) Mobile: Mobile operators worldwide have recognized the importance of 3G, yet WiMAX would remain attractive, owing to its enhanced data transmission capabilities, providing an opportunity to offer enhanced data and communication services.
- Applications: as discussed earlier, both 3G and WiMAX would support the evolution of enhanced communication products and services, but the impact of WiMAX is expected to be bigger and goes beyond cellular communication — affecting a wide range of services including cable TV, fixed line telecommunication, network data backhaul, etc.