WIMAX and The Next Big Idea

— August 01, 2006

WiMAX has had boosters referring to it in the present tense ever since it was a jumble of competing draft specifications. Intel evangelized the technology from the beginning, spinning visions of always-connected laptops with a zeal reminiscent of its massive (and successful) Wi-Fi Centrino campaign. And the world's top three handset makers are all strong WiMAX backers: Motorola has announced an ambitious WiMAX rollout in Pakistan for the second half of the year, Nokia offers carrier-grade WiMAX gear and Samsung has already demonstrated WiMAX-equipped phones and laptops. Infrastructure and chip leaders such as Nortel and Alcatel are pushing the technology, as are a number of WiMAX-focused companies such as Aperto, Navini and Redline. It's already a crowded field.

At its most ambitious, WiMAX promises virtually ubiquitous wireless broadband. "When people leave the enterprise, WiMAX provides a broadband connection with performance that is equivalent or near-equivalent to what they see in the office," says Bruce Gustafson, director of WiMAX marketing for Nortel.

The bandwidth, at least in testing performed by a WiMAX backer such as Motorola, is impressive. "We'd expect to see peak rates around 22 Mbps, and a typical average user will be around 2 to 5 Mbps, faster than a T1, comparable to a cable modem or high-speed DSL," says Motorola's Paul Sergeant, director of product marketing for WiMAX systems.

Clearing the Vapor
What WiMAX actually is boils down to two standards based on IEEE specifications. The first, based on IEEE 802.16-2004, is for fixed applications with stationary clients. WiMAX-certified fixed products already exist, but the technology faces barriers in the United States in part because its licensed spectrum band is reserved for military use. The second version, based on 802.16e, is the mobile variant that lets clients hand-off from one base station to another.

Intel has promised a mobile WiMAX PC card in the second half of the year, but no "official" mobile WiMAX hardware will exist until the WiMAX Forum (which guarantees interoperability between products) begins certification in the third quarter.

"The fixed version of WiMAX is in the field today. We've put stuff up in Canada, Asia and around Europe," says Gustafson. "The mobile stuff is just starting to go into trial now." Motorola's Sergeant expected the first mobile WiMAX deployments from regional carriers in 2007. "From the big operators that build out nationwide, I'd expect to see something in 2008," he adds.

According to market analysis firm Infonetics, WiMAX is definitely primed for growth. The firm's research shows equipment sales jumped 48 percent in the first quarter of 2006 to $68.3 million, and it predicts annual revenues of $1.7 billion by 2009.

A Place In the Enterprise
WiMAX means speedy, wide data coverage, but what's it good for in practical terms? "For larger enterprises WiMAX will almost certainly be a cost-effective alternative for building-to-building connections that may currently be reliant, perhaps reluctantly, on wireless LAN," says Richard Webb, an Infonetics analyst. This scenario is already getting attention from companies.

"I've talked to manufactures with many centers who are looking at WiMAX as a primary link between sites, or a secondary to back up something like fiber," says Gartner analyst William Clark.

WiMAX may also emerge as a fixed Internet connectivity alternative to wireline. Today, wireless service provider TowerStream offers enterprise-class data and VoIP service using "pre-WiMAX" hardware, and the company is an aggressive supporter of WiMAX for this application. Broadband wireless access (BWA) to the enterprise potentially translates into faster installs and lower costs than wireline, goals that WiMAX may achieve where early BWA efforts faltered, thanks to the economies of scale that standardization makes possible.

The most exciting potential WiMAX usage is arguably the wide-area extension of high-speed connectivity via public networks, much like today's cellular deployment. "I see that being a very important part of the enterprise proposition," says Intel's Yung Hahn, general manager, WiMAX products division. Hahn predicted WiMAX radios will find their way into devices ranging from phones to laptops, including "in between" products like the nascent ultra mobile (UMPC) category. Intel has publicly stated its plans to integrate WiMAX alongside Wi-Fi in its mobile chipsets, and it's easy to imagine a near future in which virtually every laptop is equipped with an integrated WiMAX radio, as is the case with Wi-Fi today.

The question remains, though, about what the enterprise would actually do with that mobile connectivity. "What we found in our research is that users want to do what they're already doing: they want to use VPNs, email, access corporate and public Internet information, and have it all wherever they go, without the hassle of finding a Wi-Fi hotspot," says Motorola's Sergeant. However, this is also feasible with 3G cellular today, and Sergeant is candid about the fuzziness existing around the real demand for high-speed mobile data. "The jury is still out on what the applications are for mobile broadband. -- I think it suffers from a lack of imagination," he says. "Ten years ago somebody thought of Google and eBay, and now they're very wealthy, but most of us didn't think in those terms. I think the applications that will really drive this are still being invented."

The Future Wireless Ecosystem
Although there's general agreement that WiMAX won't challenge Wi-Fi for in-building coverage and local network functionality, the relationship between WiMAX and 3G is more complex.

Some experts think mobile WiMAX will be DOA in the United States because of 3G's head start. "The likely scenario is that the 3G carriers will be able to squeeze it into a niche," says Gartner's Clark. "The carriers continue to increase their capacity on the 3G data networks and they're also lowering the prices on that, so by the time mobile WiMAX matures, it's going to be a tough proposition to take on 3G directly." Of the national cellular carriers, only Sprint has shown vocal interest in WiMAX.

WiMAX manufacturers aren't worried about 3G. "We don't live in a world where the 3G incumbents have a God-given right to deploy wireless technology and no one else does, thank goodness," says Intel's Hahn. "You're going to see WiMAX deployments by people that are not traditional 3G players," he adds, pointing to wireline operators looking for a mobile option.

Many of the biggest interests in WiMAX (Motorola, Samsung, Nortel, Nokia) are also heavily invested in 3G cellular and see no conflict between the two technologies. According to Motorola's Sergeant, the relative merits of WiMAX and 3G are largely irrelevant to the end user. He said that although WiMAX will likely be somewhat cheaper to deploy and maintain than competing 3G technologies, the differences experienced by end users in terms of cost and performance won't be tremendous. "From a carrier perspective, [WiMAX] allows the have-nots, those who don't have 3G spectrum or a clear migration path, to do business in the mobile wireless market."

Sergeant also advises enterprises to focus on the imminent rise of high-speed, wide-area data services and ponder, "What are the applications, and what are the implications for the business?" The specific wireless technology will ultimately be less important than the ways it's leveraged. Multimode mobile devices supporting Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular are already proliferating, and that trend is likely to continue and include WiMAX, says Sergeant.

Infonetics' Webb says, "My feeling is that WiMAX will do well but not at the expense of [Wi-Fi or 3G]. I envisage more of a patchwork quilt of wireless technologies co-existing on a network -- " Sergeant envisions a similar scenario. "You'll get the same application whether you're connecting through 3G, WiMAX or Wi-Fi." //

Peter M. Ferenczi is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, C.A., and Paris, France.

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