After all the fuss about WiMax certification, how come some leading vendors aren't bothering with it?

WiMax certification is long overdue. The technology is ready for wireless broadband, and the market is supposed to start next year. Service providers wanting to buy WiMax products need to know that what they buy from different vendors can work together, and while everyone claims to conform to the standards, it's not enough to take people's word for it.

That's the reason the WiMax Forum has been holding plugfests (such as the one earlier this month in Beijing) and working overtime to try and get a set of tests ready. Pass the tests - including a test of interoperability with other products - and you can put a WiMax certificate on your product.

The testing work got held up, but some vendors are optimistic. "WiMax certification had a three to nine month slip," says Paul Senior, vice president of marketing at WiMax kit vendor Airspan. "But in China, we got interoperability for FDD and TDD [two basic WiMax variants]. I predict we will have certification this year."

But not everyone agrees. Alvarion, for one, has said that it will not bother to certify its products at the level available this year. "There are people saying there is no point in doing certification at this stage," crows Senior. "Perhaps they don't have a product that is ready at this time. Some people's roadmaps try to do other things - and they got caught out."

It's not that simple, says Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing at Alvarion. Due to the delays, WiMax certification got divided into different waves. Airspan is keen to get certified in Wave One, and Alvarion is skipping it, but promises to get certified for Wave Two.

"It's a crawl, walk run process," says O'Neal. "If someone is walking already, then they don't need to do a test to show they can crawl." The difference between the two, he says, is that Alvarion has an existing fixed wireless product that it is migrating to WiMax, while Airspan is a new entrant to the market.

Wave One tests that a product is handling the primary air protocol according to the 802.16-2004 (fixed WiMax) standard, but it does not test the voice and data services delivered over that protocol.

Vendors that have existing products will not comply with it, because their products have been shipping since before the 802.16-2004 standard was nailed down, while later arrivals will be working towards launching products that do comply with the standard.

To get a Wave 1 certificate, explains O'Neal, a vendor like Alvarion would have to create a product specifically to comply with the primary air protocol, and go through a cycle of certification. The certificate would only apply to the Wave 1 product, and not to any of the products it is actually selling - and the Wave 1 product would not be able to support any actual WiMax certified services, since these don't exist yet.

"Wave One is a great place for people to start," says O'Neal. "They can get in early and influence the test procedures. But the Wave One certified products won't actually be sellable."

"We have 130 carrier customers," he went on. "Do they want a certified product that does less than what they currently have, or new features and a migration path to a fully-certified product?"

Catching the next waves
The next wave, the outdoor services specification, is due in the first half of 2006, and O'Neal says Alvarion's existing BreezeMax products will be migrated to meet that test.

If the schedules don't slip again, Wave 3 will follow on from that, in the second half of 2006, and support indoor services - which will allow self-install WiMax products that are portable. This will also be the start of 802.11e, the mobile version of WiMax, and companies like Navini, which are majoring on portable WiMax will join the caravan at this stage.

Finally, at some point in 2007, Wave 4 will support mobile services. At this stage, Motorola and Nokia, who intend to only support 802.11e mobile WiMax will get in on the act.

Fixed v Mobile?
The organisation of WiMax into waves should also clarify the overlap between fixed and mobile WiMax, which has been much overstated, says O'Neal: "Chip manufacturers and base stations will do both, but I can't think of CPE [customer premises equipment] that is both mobile and fixed."

Base stations will support both - although not many service providers will offer both services, as they tend to provide either fixed or mobile services, says O'Neal.

In CPE, indoor WiMax devices will be created, which can be moved to a different location and switched on there, but that is "nomadic" usage, a half-way house between fixed and mobile, says O'Neal. Laptops won't get WiMax till the mobile versioni is finished: "You never put fixed wireless in a mobile device."