Whither WiMAX?

By Michelle Maisto — March 02, 2009

In September 2008, Sprint debuted fixed and mobile WiMAX connectivity in Baltimore, MD, through a 4G service called XOHM. Advertised download speeds were 6 Mbps for fixed service and 4 Mbps for mobile, with connectivity via a Motorola 3G/4G USB modem, designed to seamlessly transition a user to 3G service where 4G isn't available.

In January, the service arrived in Portland, OR, this time re-branded as Clear from Clearwire. In the interim, Sprint Nextel had merged its efforts with Clearwire under the Clearwire name, decided to phase out the XOHM brand, and determined to still offer 4G services in an MVNO capacity.

Also changed was the monthly rate, reduced from $35 to $20 for contract-free monthly service; daily passes remain $10. Benjamin Wolff, CEO of Clearwire, in a company announcement, said "Clearwire is reinventing wireless by delivering an unmatched combination of Internet speed and mobility."

Clearwire currently offers "pre-WIMAX" service in 46 U.S. cities, which it plans to, one by one, update to WiMAX proper, though it won't say within what timeframe or what order. 

(Editor's Update: In the time since this article was originally filed for our March/April 2009 print edition, Clearwire has announced additional rollouts in several cities throughout the rest of this year. Click here to see the full announcement)

According to the WiMAX Forum, a not-for-profit organization focused on accelerating the introduction of WiMAX technologies, by the end of 2008 there were 407 WiMAX deployments across 133 countries. The story of WiMAX in the United States today would, then, seem one of playing catch up. But is it?


Going The Distance

WiMAX is a high-speed connectivity option based on the 802.16 open standard. It offers WiFi-like speeds but with greater security options and more efficient bandwidth use. A fixed WiMAX modem can provide broadband wireless access up to 30 miles, and mobile WiMAX -- the more excitedly discussed of the two, based on 802.16e -- can span three to 10 miles, making it ideal for metropolitan areas.

Where WiFi is talked about in terms of "hot spots," WiMAX is discussed in wider-reaching "hot zones." WiMAX operates on licensed and unlicensed spectrum -- in the U.S., it's primarily on the 2.5 spectrum band, which is owned and operated by Clearwire, whose investors include Intel, Comcast, Sprint, Google, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

From an enterprise perspective, XJ Wang, senior director of marketing for the WiMAX Forum, says that, once coverage is more widespread, "If your mobile workforce [requires] service anywhere, anytime, then WiMAX is really the technology to enable that."

Wang also expects WiMAX could make possible the type of convergence that could offer a single solution and bill for all of one's mobile voice and data needs. Though, "I don't believe the VoIP service is the initial focus for WiMAX operators," he adds.

Wang isn't alone in having high expectations for WiMAX in the U.S.  With deployments currently only in two cities, the service is aimed primarily at consumers. Once it's more widespread, however, mobile enterprises -- particularly in certain verticals -- potentially stand to benefit.

For example, a whitepaper from The WiMAX Forum, "WiMAX Applications for Utilities," states: "The value proposition of vertical applications such as asset tracking, fleet management, remote monitoring and control, smart metering, and mobile workforce support is compelling. WiMAX operators stand to gain a steady revenue flow generated by low-churn enterprise customers. To the enterprise, wireless Internet connectivity delivers cost savings and increased operational efficiency. "

Hardware vendors have responded accordingly. Motorola offers standalone WiMAX modems for both mobile and fixed (home) users. Toshiba has two WiMAX-embedded laptops available, and Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo and Samsung all have units planned for this year.

"It's only in two markets, but you've got these companies like Toshiba that have two units already ready to buy. To me, that's a huge vote of confidence," says Carl Townsend, President of the WiMAX.com website.



WIMAX vs. LTE

Not everyone agrees. WiMAX is set to have competition in the 4G arena from LTE (Long Term Evolution), a graduation from today's 3.5G HSPA networks, based on GSM technology. Mobile WiMAX is for data only. While it can make voice calls using VoIP technology, LTE offers voice as well as data connectivity. Ratified as a standard three years later than WiMAX, LTE has yet to be deployed anywhere.

(Editor's Update: After this article was originally filed for publication in our March/April 2009 print edition, Verizon announced its formal plans to roll out LTE in the U.S. To see the full announcement, click here.)

"Most WiMAX deployments around the globe to date are for fixed or nomadic services offered by Internet service providers [who are] aiming to compete with DSL/cable modem Internet services or provide service to geographies without good wireline broadband availability," says Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, Senior Analyst with Strategy Analytics. "LTE, on the other hand, is the technology of choice for existing wireless operators to upgrade their legacy mobile networks."

Philip Redman, Research VP at Gartner, agrees. "WiMAX has its opportunities in certain markets. But, we're going to see a lot more LTE subscribers in the next few years than we're going to see WiMAX subscribers. [LTE] is going to be the dominant player."

Both analysts anticipate initial LTE deployments in 2009, with wider U.S. deployments coming in "2012 or beyond," says Welsh de Grimaldo.

Hardware vendors are hedging their bets. "There aren't any WiMAX vendors out there that aren't also providing LTE equipment," says Redman. "But there are LTE vendors that aren't doing any WiMAX."

According to Redman, WiMAX could be a lower-cost and faster technology than LTE, but that doesn't guarantee it can beat the market forces at play in today's environment.

"We've seen technologies in the past, like Betamax, for instance, which lost out to an inferior technology in the VCR," he explains. "The better technology doesn't always win. It's about where the market is moving toward."


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