Sunday, August 23, 2009

Standardization

It is also possible to compare the two technologies with respect to the extent to which they are standardized. Broadly, it appears that the formal standards picture for 3G is perhaps more clear than for WLAN. For 3G, there is a relatively small family of internatio nally sanctioned standards, collectively referred to as WCDMA. However, there is still uncertainty as to which of these (or even if multiple ones) will be selected by service providers. In contrast, WiFi is one of the family of continuously evolving 802.11x wireless Ethernet standards, which is itself one of many WLAN technologies that are under development. Although it appears that WiFi is emerging as the market winner, there is still a substantial base of HomeRF and other open standard and proprietary technologies that are installed and continue to be sold to support WLANs. Thus, it may appear that the standards picture for WLANs is less clear than for 3G, but the market pressure to select the 802.11x family of technologies appears much less ambiguous – at least today.

Because ubiquitous WLAN access coverage would be constructed from the aggregation of many independent WLANs, there is perhaps a greater potential for the adoption of heterogeneous WLAN technologies than might be the case with 3G. With 3G, although competing service providers may adopt heterogeneous and incompatible versions of 3G, there is little risk that there will be incompatibilities within a carriers own 3G network. Of course in the context of a mesh of WLANs, reliance on IP as the basic transport layer may reduce compatibility issues at the data networking level, although these could be significant at the air interface (i.e., RF level). Unless coordinated, this could be a significant impediment to realizing scale economies and network externality benefits in a bottom- up, decentralized deployment of WiFi local access infrastructure.

Support for Services

Another important difference between 3G and WiFi is their embedded support for voice services. 3G was expressly designed as an upgrade technology for wireless voice telephony networks, so voice services are an intrinsic part of 3G. In contrast, WiFi provides a lower layer data communications service that can be used as the substrate on which to layer services such as voice telephony. For example, with IP running over WiFi it is possible to support Voice-over-IP telephony. However, there is still great market uncertainty as to how voice services would be implemented and quality assured over WLAN networks.

Another potential advantage of 3G over WiFi is that 3G offers better support for secure/private communications than does WiFi. However, this distinction may be more apparent than real. First, we have only limited operational experience with how secure 3G communications are. Hackers are very ingenious and once 3G systems are operating, we will find holes that we were not previously aware of. Second, the security lapses of WiFi have attracted quite a bit of attention and substantial resources are being devoted to closing this gap. Although wireless communications may pose higher risks to privacy (e.g., follow-me anywhere tracking capabilities) and security (i.e., passive monitoring of RF transmissions is easier) than do wireline networks, we do not believe that this is likely to be a long-term differentiating factor between 3G and WiFi technologies.

Deployment Status

While 3G licenses have been awarded in a number of markets at a cost of billions of dollars to the licensees, we have seen only limited progress with respect to service deployment. Indeed, many of the licensees have seen their market values drop precipitously as a consequence of the high costs of obtaining the licenses, increased cost of deployment expectations, and diminished prospects for short-term revenue. The cost of obtaining the licenses contributed to the worldwide slump in the global telecommunications sector.

In contrast, we have a large installed base of WiFi networking equipment that is growing rapidly as WiFi vendors have geared up to push wireless home networks using the technology. The large installed base of WiFi provides substantial learning, scale, and scope economies to both the vendor community and end-users. The commoditization of WiFi equipment has substantially lowered prices and simplified the installation and management of WiFi networks, making it feasible for non-technical home users to self- install these networks. However, although there a large installed base of WiFi equipment, there has been only limited progress in developing the business models and necessary technical and business infrastructure to support distributed serving provisioning. In addition, many of the pioneers in offering wireless access services such as Mobilstar and Metricom went bankrupt in 2001 as a consequence of the general downturn in the telecom sector and the drying up of capital for infrastructure investment.

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