Special Report: Apple's secret iPhone WiMax plans?

Apple’s expected to introduce the much-anticipated 3G iPhone next month – but what if the company’s planning a little more than simple support for the 3G standard?

Enter InterDigital. In March, that company revealed it has signed-up Apple (and RIM) as a licensee for its 3G technologies. “As to our market share for 3G, while we did not achieve the 50% target, we did add some very high-quality licensees including Apple, Giant, and RIM…,” the company explained.

This news generated sparks of speculation that InterDigital’s SlimChip architecture might be deployed in products from Apple. InterDigital is currently suing Nokia on grounds that company contravenes the former’s held patents on 3G technologies. Apple’s agreement to license these forms some kind of evidence of 3G inclusion in the iPhone – but we think Apple may plan a far bigger step. We suspect – and we have to say this is only speculation on our part – that Apple may plan to move from behind the cutting edge of mobile technologies (by not including 3G support in the first place) right to the forefront of what’s possible. And in order to achieve that, we think there’s a chance Apple may introduce support for the little-known 802.21 wireless standard

802.21 is soon to be an official standard that converges various types of fixed and mobile technologies: in the case of an 802.21 handset, deployment of the standard could theoretically allow the device to seamlessly switch between various connectivity options, including Wi-FI, 3G and (drum roll please), WiMax.

Now, as Computerworld recently noted, “as is normally the case with new standards, this standard will need a good deal of marketing to really get rolling and it also will need to get the best of competing convergence efforts.”

Apple’s success in bringing new technologies to market was made most clear when it single-handedly popularised WiFi technology (AirPort) when it introduced the iBook in 1999. WiFi’s fairly popular nowadays. InterDigital’s move to join the WiFi Alliance this year, followed by its move to license its 3G modem technology to a shadowy (unnamed) Asian fabless semiconductor company also passed under the radar.

Intel’s WiMax technology has been a promise on a whisper for some time now. Implementation of the technology has faced some resistance, not least from mobile phone networks, scared to cede their control of wireless networks. While that resistance is common in developed telephony markets, it’s less visible in some emerging markets.

Take Russia, for example. December 2007 saw local mobile telco Comstar and Intel announce their intention to build a nationwide WiMax network to launch in Moscow this year (cost, $20/month). Comstar (under its Stream brand) is already Moscow’s leading broadband provider.

Why does a WiMax network make sense for Russia? The secret’s in the existing infrastructure. Russia has 147.3 million mobile subscriptions but just 40.1 million standard telephones. The majority of the existing Russian mobile phone infrastructure is based on 2.5G technologies, though this is changing following the April 2007 granting of 3G licenses to Megafon, MTS and VympelCom (which trades as Beeline). As such, 3G services are set to launch in major Russian cities in late spring/summer. However, Russia is a vast country, and WiMax could provide an alternative route to bring more of the country into the digital decade. 

The US is seeing WiMax deployments, albeit slowly and subject to much delay. Zyxtel is shipping XHOM WiMax high speed routers to Sprint that will be used in its nationwide WiMAX rollout, perhaps later this year. And AT&T’s unlikely to take its eye off the importance of its network products segment – it won’t let Sprint take home all the gravy


WiMAX is also being rolled out in Germany and Japan, two of Apple’s bigger markets, with active trials underway and early 2008 mass rollouts planned.

So, let’s consider the evidence at this point: We know Apple has a licensing deal with InterDigital; we are fairly confident Apple will introduce a 3G iPhone soon; we know Apple has aggressive sales targets for this device, and that the company plans to introduce iPhones into more territories this year; we know that some of those target countries, Russia, for example, are moving to adopt WiMax; and we know InterDigital is deeply involved in developing a convergence standard to facilitate use of mixed network standards through a single device.

We also know Apple likes to amaze, and is in a close relationship with Intel, which is looking for a WiMax champion (and is building WiMax support into many of its chips). With WiMax network roll-out set to gather steam this year, Apple has the opportunity to leapfrog all debate regarding 3G support and initiate a new age of wide area network computing. 

All these signs and portents don’t constitute anything other than speculation. After all – WiMax isn’t yet widely deployed, and Apple may choose to wait until it is before it initiates such a move. But when (or if) it does, it already has the key relationships – and products – it needs to hustle users into a new connected age.  Remember, Apple was the first to bring its customers to Wifi – with its Airport products introduced at MacWorld New York City in 1999.

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