July 18, 2008

Mformation Bags a Showcase WiMAX Deal With Sprint

Mobile device management vendor Mformation has secured a deal with Sprint to manage devices which access its new WiMAX network. The network, scheduled for launch in September, is a new kind of wireless WAN technology, markedly different from cellular. As such, it brings with it its own set of challenges for vendors.

The Sprint contract expands on Mformation's existing relationship with the operator, for which it already manages devices on its CDMA cellular network. However, the WiMAX deal is significant in its own right: Sprint's Xohm offering will be the first commercially available service connecting to end devices fitted with radios for the alternative wireless WAN technology, also known as 802.16e. There are other networks in existence which use WiMAX technology, but in these cases it is the 802.16d variety: fixed WiMAX, in which WiMAX is used for backhauling traffic, with device connectivity using a different radio access network (RAN) technology such as WiFi or conventional cellular.

As such, all eyes will be on the Xohm service to gauge the viability of Sprint's business model for 802.16e. Equally, the Sprint WiMAX contract is important for Mformation because it is an opportunity for the vendor to demonstrate its prowess in what is a significantly different RAN technology, with a distinct set of challenges separate from cellular mobile device management (MDM).

For example, WiMAX is an all-IP network in a way that cellular is only just starting to be. This means differences in how a device is woken up, bootstrapped to a particular authentication server, and so on. In addition, the Xohm service will initially be accessed primarily by non-phone devices such as laptops, with phones only joining the fray once handsets start shipping with WiMAX radios. Thus, there will be no IMEI device identity codes, the MDM platform having to rely instead on MAC and IP addresses.

User information is also a different issue. The MDM platform must access an AAA server in the service provider network rather than any information held in a home location register (HLR) database, accessed from an MSISDN number on a handset.

The expectation is that the vast majority of these devices will not have been acquired from Sprint and may not even be on a contract with the operator. From the outset, Sprint has anticipated that many of the sessions on Xohm will be ad hoc, coming from non-registered users paying to use it at the time they connect rather than on a contract basis. As such, Sprint will have no prior relationship with either the user or the device.

With regards to Mformation, the company generally adopts a standards-based approach to MDM, using specifically the OMA DM protocol for this purpose. However, that particular protocol has no provision for WiMAX, so the company was forced to lobby the Open Mobile Alliance to create new objects specifically for executing MDM on WiMAX networks. The likelihood is that many of the devices attaching to Xohm will be dual- or even multi-mode, meaning that a WiMAX radio will co-exist with cellular and/or WiFi varieties. As such, the MDM platform must have the capability to support more than one RAN technology in the same handset.

An interesting question now is, with Sprint having chosen Mformation for its MDM platform in 802.16e, what will the other company planning a WiMAX service for the US, Clearwire, do? Mformation's main rival in MDM, InnoPath, last month announced support for WiMAX, suggesting that it sees an opportunity to align itself with Sprint's competitor and thus differentiate its offering. On the other hand, Intel is an investor in both Clearwire and Mformation and so may champion the latter's technology within the carrier.

Rik Turner