Or, the 32 steps to 4G

July 1, 2008

8 Min Read
Wireless Standards 101

1:45 PM -- In late May I attended and spoke at the Informa plc LTE Summit in Berlin. As I’ve said in prior posts, I have a bunch to say about LTE (Long-Term Evolution), but first, I’d like to outline a list of steps it takes to create a Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN) standard, such as HSPA, EV-DO, WiMax, or LTE.

I’m not an engineer. I don’t even play one on TV. But I have been deeply involved with folks who are heavily into developing and setting wireless standards. It would be an easy thing, once again, to try to sum up this process in a few steps, or a "Top 10 List," but for folks who have stuck through reading my stuff, I tend to shy away from the simplistic. However, in this case, as long as this list may be, as anyone involved in standards would relate, my list below IS simplistic and abbreviated. The setting of global telecommunications standards is a massive undertaking by a broad range of global organizations, and an even broader list of brilliant technologists whose gray matter makes this happen.

Although the list is lengthy, I want to be clear that I am NOT making a value judgment. Developing and launching a new wireless standard is staggeringly costly, from a dollar and resource level, across the entire ecosystem. I have a never-ending respect for the engineers who actually make this stuff happen. But as you will see from my LTE comments, my fear is that the industry is about to "do it again" and set unrealistic timelines and performance expectations for the launch of LTE. You would think people would learn after being through this for each of the “G’s”!

I dealt vocally and publicly with this "unrealistic standards deployment dates" issue surrounding the “Mobile WiMax will be ready in 2006 (then 2007, then 2008…)” chorus (don’t believe me, do your own googling!). Now, I recently spent days listening to vendor after vendor intoning the old standby, “LTE will be published in December 2008, and there will be networks up for January 2010 launches.” The publication of the standard, yep, that could/will happen -- but REAL January 2010 launches, I could be wrong, but I’m a skeptic. Off the record, some folks were a bit more forthright, but the claim of January 2010 LTE launches was pretty consistent across the entire vendor base.

As to the list below, we have all experienced each of these steps. We read the releases, swallow the hype, hear about changes in dates and specifications, read about new entrants to the ecosystems at various points in the process, but somehow we often avoid integrating all of these steps in a way that lets us view it all as a continuous process. Sort of a history-repeating-itself cliché, but with a wireless bent…


1) Have a standards body or bodies issue a press release, or better yet, a bunch of them, describing the standard and timeframes for creation. Like this one on OFDMA or this one, from 2004, on Next Generation Networks -- 475 attendees from 75 countries!

2) In addition to the standards body responsible for the standard, have several industry groups and, hopefully, a new consortium or two put out supporting announcements.

3) Within the standards process, establish “Stage I” of thestandard. If this were a house, this would be the basic “what we are going to build." For this and the other standards steps, go to 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and spend a while poking around. The complexity and thoroughness is staggering.

4) Within the standards process, establish “Stage II” of the standard. Again, staying with the house analogy, this would be the architectural drawings.

5) For various elements of the ecosystems (chipset, infrastructure, handset, test equipment, etc.) build and test prototypes (optional), and start a continuing series of simulation data and field trials.

6) Revise the standard to accommodate contributions, and modify based on simulations and any available field data. Lots of players in this process, very complex.

7) Do #6 a bunch of times. If this process is cut short for political reasons (e.g., the need for press releases to hit "marketing dates") there will be hell to pay down the road. As I’ve said innumerable times, technical challenges get solved with Time, Money, and Smart People, but there are constraints on all of those dimensions.

8) Establish (and everybody ratify) a standard for devices and equipment.

9) Start to design FFAs, which are Form Factor Accurate devices that can be used for testing. (My view below will be user device-centric, but imagine similar tracks for every element of the base stations and other infrastructure elements.)

10) Demonstrate the FFAs or other prototype devices and network equipment behind closed doors at a tradeshow, or in controlled drive tests.

11) Behind closed doors, let folks (editors, analysts, the Street) actually touch/use the stuff (making sure not to REALLY let people know what type of equipment is behind the curtain that makes the proto work, 'cause usually that’s an ugly sight).

12) Put working equipment on display in a tradeshow booth -- with handlers to make sure nobody actually touches anything.

13) Put working equipment on display in a tradeshow booth -- and let attendees demo.

14) Make sure there are standards-compliant chipsets shipping for devices and infrastructure.

15) Start/continue interoperability testing among various manufacturers' equipment.

16) Make sure there are plenty of test equipment vendors with a broad array of equipment, that are measuring "the right stuff" (e.g., if the standards are wishy washy and interpretive, how the heck do the test equipment guys know what to test in any meaningful way?).

17) Track the list of the “bug fixes” to the published standard that the standards body is dealing with. For several months (and sometimes years), the graph of "necessary fixes" will have a positive slope, as new bugs are identified and added to the list. For some standards, there can be hundreds or even thousands of requested/necessary fixes. They will ALL be addressed over time. At some point, the slope of the line goes "negative," which means that the standard is actually stabilizing, but by then, there’s a new standard coming along.

18) Ship and test-market trial equipment (i.e., hundreds of units that folks will be testing in the field).

19) Go to #15 if necessary (and it usually is).

20) Ship and test soft-launch (friendly user trial) equipment (thousands). A friendly user trial usually comprises employees, vendors, and friends of employees and vendors, who will help identify bugs and issues, without every pimple showing up in the press.

21) Go to #15 if necessary (and it usually is).

22) Launch first markets (tens of thousands), usually keeping it simple (single mode of standard, single band).

23) Go to #15 if necessary (and it often is).

24) Get multiple vendors for the first COMMERCIAL launch markets.

25) Start selling “real stuff” even though that real stuff will have technical, size, cost, and power compromises (this will require its own post to describe).

26) Get feedback from real people, put your PR people to work on how come the devices and services in #25 are too big, too expensive, have lousy battery life, and perform nowhere near what you’ve been promising in your "peak rate" mantras of the previous several years.

27) Have your execs spend 30 to 40 percent of their time explaining to customers and the financial markets why the issues in #24 occurred, what corrective action will be, and why the subscriber and financial metrics are now "pushed to the right."

28) Wait until next-generation silicon comes along, which starts to solve some of the issues in #26, along with further expansion of availability of devices from multiple suppliers, which starts to bring prices down to less staggering levels.

29) Launch in more markets, ship in the single-digit millions, start to get REAL market traction.

30) Add devices with more RF bands and more radios inside.

31) Have a third round of silicon, more vendors, and quantities in the tens of millions. Now the ecosystem is rolling, the markets are cranking, and everybody starts slowly forgetting what they went through to get to this point.

32) Go back to #1.

As I said, this is MY list -- others will have a different take on the process. I’m sure I may be missing steps; I’m sure that some of these steps can occur in parallel; but I’m also sure that NO successful wireless standard has skipped this process and just waved a magic technical or market wand to make these steps and challenges go away.

The process is long, the process is ugly, but over time, we end up with wireless standards that are more capable than the past, faster, less expensive, and let us do more and more cool stuff on an ever increasing array of platforms and devices. So, in its own odd, expensive, and time consuming way, it works.

— Jeff Belk is a principal at ICT168 Capital LLC, focused on developing and guiding global growth opportunities in the Information and Communication Technology space. He can be reached at [email protected]. Special to Unstrung

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