Qualcomm's $600 million purchase of Flarion Technologies last month demonstrates how aggressively vendors are gearing up for the next mobile standards battle. That skirmish will center on orthogonal frequency division multiplexing, or OFDM, technology for the IP-based broadband wireless market as well as future commercial mobile networks when CDMA-based third-generation systems run their course.

Flarion, a leading developer of OFDM access technology and inventor of the technology known as Flash-OFDM, has said it owns more than 100 patents that relate to how OFDM can be deployed in a mobile environment and is the only vendor to have deployed mobile OFDM commercially. Vendors such as Qualcomm, which has made its living on licensing CDMA, and Motorola have filed for hundreds of OFDM-related patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office within the past year.

“This transaction is primarily about Flarion's [intellectual property rights], most notably its demonstrated ability to mobilize OFDM, than about Flash-OFDM deployments,” said Michael Thelander, head of research firm Signals Research Group.

OFDM already has transformed the fixed wireless world by moving 802.11-based technologies from theoretical speeds of 11 Mb/s to real-world transmission speeds of 50 Mb/s and beyond. The technology also is the basis for the emerging WiMAX standards, which are expected to attract a variety of telecom players globally by extending the reach of DSL and cable, offering broadband competition to wireline services.

The beauty of OFDM is the technology's high spectral efficiency, resiliency to radio-frequency interference and high data speeds because the radio signal is split into several narrowband channels at different frequencies. This multi-lane highway of sorts has been possible to achieve only recently because of higher processing power.

Qualcomm's acquisition means the company will be able to influence the pace of commercialization of the mobile WiMAX standard, known as 802.16e, which major telecom companies have been clamoring for. Many WiMAX proponents consider mobility the best opportunity for the technology to compete with DSL and other broadband technologies. Jeff Belk, senior vice president of marketing for Qualcomm, said the company believes it holds key intellectual property that pertains to Mobile WiMAX.

In a recent report from Deutsche Bank, the firm indicates that WiMAX standards to date do not define the Layer 3 standard, which is the key to radio resource management, handoff and power control — important features that make mobility seamless.

“We note that Qualcomm dominates this space with its [intellectual property] position,” Deutsche Bank said. “Any attempts to define this layer will draw the scrutiny of Qualcomm and could cause further delays to an already lagging standard.”

The question is: Will Qualcomm push a competitor to WiMAX using Flash-OFDM, join the WiMAX fray or simply enforce its intellectual property rights?

Patrick Leary, assistant vice president of marketing of Alvarion, said the patent battle surrounding WiMAX will likely become an interesting battle. “It's different than Qualcomm's control of CDMA,” he said. “With OFDM, patents are spread out among different parties. Of course, Qualcomm will say it holds dominion over OFDM.”

Belk said Qualcomm is committed to supporting all product commitments and trials Flarion has commenced worldwide, but noted that the company has not made any specific decisions in terms of technology road maps, which includes commercial plans for Flash-OFDM technology and whether Qualcomm will enter the WiMAX market.

“We want to see what the technology can do,” Belk said. “Flarion has been good about presenting metrics and showing results of systems, and we expect that to continue. That puts the onus on the Mobile WiMAX guys to show something.”

Standardization of Flash-OFDM was under way under the auspices of the Institute of Electronic and Engineering (IEEE) standards body, known as 802.20. Flarion had hoped last year to knock out the standard within 12 to 18 months, but political maneuverings from various vendors, including Qualcomm, had slowed the process considerably, said people close to the standardization process.

For its part, Flarion had struggled to find a major operator willing to deploy a proprietary technology. Flarion had conducted a promising trial with Nextel Communications, but the carrier decided against adopting Flash-OFDM when it merged with Sprint. The technology was gaining some inroads into the public-safety sector when the District of Columbia in early 2004 launched a pilot high-speed wireless broadband network with Motorola and Flarion.

However, Flarion had been pinning its hopes outside of the U.S. through trials with South Korea's SK Telecom and Europe's Vodafone and T-Mobile. Yet no carrier has made a solid commitment to the technology.

Another interesting aspect of the deal could be the impact Qualcomm's acquisition will having on the ongoing work in the Third-Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which sets the standards for W-CDMA-based networks, and 3GPP2, which governs the CDMA2000 standard. 3GPP has been actively looking at OFDM. Earlier this year, 3GPP completed a work item that included a feasibility study looking into whether OFDM would be an appropriate technology to incorporate into the downlink of the W-CDMA specification while maintaining the CDMA link.

Likewise, Qualcomm last summer introduced a proposal to 3GPP2 to combine OFDM and CDMA in the downlink portion of future releases of the 1xEV-DO standard.

“OFDM is particularly good for bursty traffic and especially quick for error correction and feedback in the channel,” said Andy Fuertes, senior analyst with Visant Strategies. “You can send an unlimited number of bits or use smaller bits to control the air interference or compensate for problems in the channel.”

THE BIRTH OF OFDM

JULY 2000

Flarion spun off from Lucent Technologies

OCT. 2000

FCC grants Flarion trial for 700 MHz market trial

FEB. 2001

Flarion conducts successful field trial of its Flash-OFDM technology

MARCH 2004

Flarion announces FLASH-OFDM chipsets and modems for devices and handsets

MAY 2004

Vodafone initiates trial with Flarion's mobile broadband data system

SEPTEMBER 2004

Flarion announces T- Mobile to undertake trial of mobile broadband data system in Europe

OCTOBER 2004

Siemens to integrate FLASH-OFDM into its portfolio of mobile broadband solutions

OCTOBER 2004

Aloha Partners launches market trial of Flarion's Flash-OFDM technology to offer mobile broadband to public safety and rural homes

AUGUST

Qualcomm announces plans to acquire Flarion

Motorola announces WiMAX initiative

Motorola said it would improve its ability to bring WiMAX (802.16e) solutions to market more quickly by increasing R&D efforts and placing a greater emphasis on “technology relationships.” The initiative includes the introduction of the Moto Wi4 product suite that the company said would “take operators to the fourth generation of mobile wireless networks.”

Moto Wi4 solutions include a “light infrastructure” solution for rural areas and developing countries as well as a carrier-class solution, the company said. The latter solution features an IP-based peer-to-peer network architecture that places the intelligence in the base station and eliminates several hardware elements from the radio access network. The result is smaller footprints, Motorola said.