Wednesday, October 05, 2005

UMA and WiMax.. a dream or reality

UMA, Unlicensed Mobile Access, will be the next big feature of handsets you will but from 2006 onwards.

What is it? Why will it be big?

UMA is a technology that allows the hand-over of a voice call from GSM to WiFi and back. This means that you will be talking on a GSM service and then be moved to a wireless LAN, in a hotel, office building or airport.

It has already started, as Geoff Long wrote in Telecom Asia, but at present is slow to pick up.

Here in Thailand it will probably be a way off, as the No 1 Yuppiephone operator is likely to suppress it until it has supporting technology in place. DTAC would more likely be early adopters as they see the benefits in partnering and packaging such services together.

One of the limitations, due to unknowns, is the current WiFi (802.11) standard. Nobody really knows how well this will scale an the limited range of the wireless access points further serves to limit the success of a UMA, WiFi solution.

However WiFi's big brother WiMax has far superior range and bandwidth. The newest 802.16 standard (e) includes Scalable orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, or the nicer SOFDMA, which will help with scalability issues required for large voice usage.

There are planned WiMax trials in Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima and Roi Et before the end of the year.

So you've got the basic technology in place but how do you get to it. If you are a PDA user then you could use the quad band, WiFi and UMA supported BenQ P50, or you can adopt one of the first dual mode phones.; the LG CL400. It's probably worth waiting for Nokia et al to catch up. There is already a desire in their domestic market to fill the need for dual mode phones as previously posted here following an item in TeleGeography.

But why are the phone producers so keen on the UMA operations of their handsets? they either see UMA and Voice over WiFi as a risk and they want to be able to still meet the consumer need or they are using it as a threat to the mobile operators, one vision of a possible future.

Either way it will be the status quo. Those who [potentially] have the most to lose, the mobile operators, already have the basic infrastructure to support 802.16 so they will most likely grab the market share.

In the WiFi world there are already lots of vendors in the access provision space and in real terms how many more can enter before the sector fragments too much to make Voice over WiFi unviable. One solution is WiFi roaming agreements the other is super operators. iPass already maintain a layer to hotspots in many countries, mostly airports and hotels. This is one solution unless the China Netcom model takes up well amongst the other players.

In that case aren't we just swapping one roaming animal with another?

Things will start to steady themselves around the early second half of next year. There will be issues to iron out around quality of service and access but early leaders in Singapore and elsewhere will drive these through if the desire is there.

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