What’s Going on with WiMax?

If your company has any interest in wireless data, you’ve likely heard about WiMax, the 802.16 wireless metropolitan-area network standard. Quite possibly you’ve even been put off by the hype surrounding this new technology, especially since WiMax standardized products have yet to even hit the market.

Yet from looking over the list of presenters who showed up at WiMax World 2005 last month in Boston, you’d also likely guess that this new technology is about ready to live up to the hype. Representatives from Motorola, Siemens, Intel, and AT&T all lined up behind the technology, and a number of key partnerships were struck.

Arguably the biggest news out of WiMax World was Motorola’s partnering agreement with Intel. The two companies intend to collaborate on WiMax specifications, as well as working together to ensure the interoperability of Motorola’s mobile devices, network equipment, and customer premises equipment with Intel-based products.

Both companies have WiMax-related agreements with Sprint Nextel, as well. To date, Sprint Nextel has been the most significant WiMax supporter in the U.S., and it may be even more bullish on the technology soon.

Rumors have been circulating on technology-related blogs and bulletin boards that the Department of Defense (DoD) intends to purchase Sprint Nextel’s iDEN network. In exchange, Sprint will receive some broad swaths of spectrum in the 700 and 800 MHz bands for mobile WiMax deployments. Sprint has denied such a deal is in the works.

According to the rumors, the DoD intends to acquire the iDEN network in order to boost its post-9/11 homeland security communications infrastructure. The iDEN network will link any number of security agencies, including military and first responders, ensuring that they can all communicate with one another on a common, secure network.

Either way, Sprint Nextel is throwing its weight behind WiMax and planning accordingly. This rumored deal synchs up well with some of Sprint Nextel’s other recent activities. Most notably its agreement with Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox to form a wireless joint venture.

The deal calls for a $200 million commitment from the companies involved— $100 million from Sprint Nextel and $100 million combined from the cable companies. The goal is to provide consumers with access to a “quadruple play” suite of services, integrating video, voice, Internet and wireless capabilities. WiMax could be a key technology for facilitating these kind of converged services.

Qualcomm’s WiMax Alternative

So, does this mean that the success of WiMax is a done deal? Not necessarily. Not every major player backs WiMax, with Qualcomm, most notably, expressing doubts.

On the cellular side of the equation, mobile WiMax (802.16e) will compete with Qualcomm’s CDMA2000 1xEV-DO technology. On the broadband data side, Qualcomm purchased Flarion Technologies in August, obtaining a technology to rival WiMax, Flarion’s Flash OFDM.

Many analysts express caution about WiMax, as well. Northern Sky Research, for instance, believes that WiMax has potential, yet they predict that the hardware market will be dominated by Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G technologies for the foreseeable future.

The European research firm IDATE sees the WiMax market picking up steam, but they too believe it will be some time before WiMax is more than a niche technology. By 2010, IDATE predicts that the worldwide WiMax market will reach $3.5 billion, yet that will account for only four percent of all broadband usage.

Phil Solis, a senior analyst at ABI Research, also sees WiMax filling a broadband niche in the near term.

“As a broadband technology, I don’t see WiMax competing with DSL and cable Internet in a serious way,” Solis said. “What it will do, however, is bring broadband to rural and underserved consumers.”

In the U.S., that’s not a huge market, but internationally nearly 2 billion people live in areas where there is no copper or fiber to the home, which provides a huge opportunity for WiMax.

“Fixed WiMax [802.16d] may also compete with T-1 for businesses, or it could be used for backhaul from Wi-Fi hotspots where DSL or T-1 is unavailable,” Solis said.

In the longer term, WiMax may win some converts in urban areas where it’s offered up as an alternative to cable and DSL. The advantage of WiMax is that users are not tethered to a single connection.

True Mobility?

Is this mobility? Not quite. Not if you’re thinking in terms of cell phone mobility. Users can connect anywhere in the coverage area, but the fixed broadband version of WiMax (802.16d) doesn’t support true mobility.

“We refer to this as a nomadic service,” said Susan Steele, senior director of next generation network technology at BellSouth. “Today, this is a bit cumbersome, since you have to take the modem along with you as you roam, but as the standards evolve, access will be pushed down to the NIC or chip level.”

BellSouth recently rolled out pre-WiMax fixed wireless broadband services in Athens, GA and Palatka, FL.

While 802.16d doesn’t provide true roaming, the 802.16e standard will, and once that happens, not only will users be able to roam, but mobile voice services based on WiMax also become a possibility.

“The way I look at it is that there’s a new segment of the telecom market called personal broadband,” said Carlton O’Neal, vice president of Marketing for Alvarion, a provider of wireless broadband equipment. “The connotation of that is that you’ll have access to broadband everywhere, whether you’re on a handheld, a laptop, or some other device.”

He argued that while carriers with 3G/4G plans may not be interested in mobile WiMax for voice or even mobile data, they may still opt for fixed WiMax, seeing it as a means for bolstering their service bundles with broadband offerings. “Most everyone will deploy WiMax as a broadband service somewhere because cable and DSL can’t cover the whole word,” he said.

Steele agreed, noting that in rural and underserved areas it will be much cheaper to deploy WiMax than to run cables or install DSLAMs.

WiMax vs. 3G

When asked how WiMax stacked up against 3G, BellSouth’s Steele predicted that both technologies would be around for quite some time. “My sense is that there will be a number of standards for wireless access, but the key to making this all work is standardizing whatever system you have based on the connection to IP core networks.”

What about when mobile WiMax enters the picture? Will its voice capabilities alter the landscape? “I think you’ll still have two different types of connections,” she said. “You tend to build out voice and data networks differently.”

O’Neal at Alvarion agreed, but he pointed to the possibility of mobile WiMax serving as the platform for voice networks for any service provider lacking a mobile voice network today. “MVNOs and the cable companies could both get behind mobile WiMax networks,” he said. “For the cable companies especially, it would provide them with another means for offering better service bundles.”