Don't Forget Fixed WiMax

By Ed Sutherland

October 07, 2005

Of course mobile WiMax (802.16e) will overtake fixed wireless — but not until around 2010, says analyst.

Although mobile WiMax has captured most of the headlines, and a series of trials by mobile carriers highlights the future of wireless broadband, fixed WiMax “remains the technology’s bread and butter through 2009,” according to a report from Visant Strategies.

While 802.16e, the mobile WiMax standard, could reportedly be ratified as early as the end of the month, “the market for cable modem and digital subscriber line replacement  is expanding today, while WiMax in the mobile network remains two to four years away,” says Andy Fuertes, author of the Visant report entitled “802.16 / WiMax – Assessment of Fixed and Mobile Opportunities.”

By 2010, WiMax (both mobile and fixed) will comprise half of a $3.4 billion worldwide annual broadband equipment market, according to the report. With the current five million member wireless broadband audience expected to increase 40 percent yearly through 2010, WiMax vendors “will be perfectly poised to take advantage of this building market,” writes Fuertes.

“Fixed is not as sexy, and it’s a smaller market,” Fuertes concedes. “But it is a very real market which is growing now. It’s the real opportunity for WiMax over the next two to four years,” he tells Wi-Fi Planet. “Fixed wireless is relevant in emerging markets throughout the world, as wireless local loop on steroids."

Not Immediately Mobile

Ratification and certification of mobile WiMax doesn’t equate to quick adoption by carriers, according to Fuertes. “Certified mobile WiMax equipment will arrive during or after 2007, and mobile carriers typically test new technologies from 12 months to 18 months before implementing them throughout the network,” he says.

The first round of certification of 3.5GHz gear should be complete by November or December, according to the WiMax Forum.

“Most importantly, it is unlikely that you will see any major contracts for mobile WiMax prior to 2008-2009,” Fuertes says. “Fixed services are happening now, and those are vital revenues for startup and existing broadband wireless access vendors.”

Mobile Providers Make Plans

Nortel recently announced a mid-2006 trial of WiMax that doesn’t require “full mobility.” The agreement, with Airspan Networks, revolves around eliminating T1 and DSL backhaul connections. Nortel and Airspan aren’t strangers. In 2003, Nortel sold its fixed wireless business to Airspan for $12.9 million.

Airspan recently announced a WiMax trial in three Italian regions around Piedmont and Sicily. The trial is intended to demonstrate that Airspan customers can upgrade from fixed to mobile WiMax.

Sprint Nextel also announced a similar test of 802.16e with Samsung. The lab and field trials will “validate requirements for future wireless offerings,” according to Barry West, Sprint’s chief technology officer.

Samsung has said it expects to be the first to pilot 802.16e services later this year. The company plans a Korean commercial launch of WiBro services — that region's version of WiMax —  early next year.

Earlier this year, Nortel announced it would also develop WiMax products with South Korea’s LG Electronics. The team recently won a contract to deliver wireless multimedia to South Korea’s urban centers.

Sprint plans a similar trial of 802.16e with Motorola. The carrier expects to test a number of broadband technologies, including UMTS-TD CDMA and Flash OFDM.

“We are evaluating multiple options for 2.5 GHz applications,” says West.

AT&T has also announced plans to conducts WiMax tests. The first, in Middletown, New Jersey, concentrates on data transfer; a second trial will focus on VoIP.

Verizon said earlier this month that it has no plans to deploy WiMax, according to an Associated Press article. A Verizon spokesperson called WiMax “a step beyond a twinkle in an engineer’s eye.”

Luring Money with Mobility

WiMax vendors are using mobility to lure investors, according to Fuertes. “Vendors have to talk mobility for funding and visibility while they secure DSL replacement contracts for revenue,” he says.

While mobility is on the lips of carriers, available spectrum could limit any introduction. “Mobility is not permitted in all spectrum,” says the analyst. Although the main spectrum available for WiMax is 3.5 GHz, which is more suited to fixed installations, “the economics of mobility become very challenging once you go above 3 GHz,” he says.

Once mobile WiMax is available, there's likely to be a confusing mix of services. Some carriers will use mobile spectrum to replace DSL and cable backhaul, while other carriers with 3.5 GHz spectrum will deploy both fixed and portable services, according to Fuertes.

Dangers await vendors who concentrate too greatly on mobility, warns the analyst. “Startups who focus only on the mobile opportunity could burn through their funding before mobile WiMax becomes a reality,” Fuertes says.

“Marketing WiMax as an imminent mobile platform now runs the risk of discrediting the technology later,” he says; just look at WCDMA, or 3G.

Several years after hyping WCDMA as the broadband answer for consumers and a revenue wonder for carriers, “the gap between WCDMA reality and the WCDMA bubble has damaged the standing of the platform,” according to the analyst.

“WiMax could face the same reality and could be discredited,” he believes. Such a blow could hurt WiMax more than it has WCDMA. “No one has to deploy WiMax, and there is plenty of competition in the fixed and mobile spaces,” he says.

What happens to the demarcation line between fixed and mobile WiMax after 2010? “We believe that the lines between fixed and mobile gear will blur,” says Fuertes. 802.16e will quickly eclipse 802.16.2004 products, due to improved performance.

What does the future hold for mobile WiMax? “Once the mobile contracts happen, they will be far larger than the fixed market -- but it’s going to take some time,” he says.



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