WiMax: Hurry Up and Wait

By Eric Griffith

January 24, 2006

Analysts say the fact that WiMax products are here doesn't mean WiMax is necessarily going to win the wireless broadband race. Many providers will wait for something more mobile.

Now that there are WiMax/802.16-2004-based products available that are certified for interoperability with each other, that means the hype that has surrounded the standard for years will propel it to the top of the wireless broadband heap, right?

Not necessarily, say analysts. Competition in this area has always been fierce, perhaps especially among those with "pre-WiMax" gear, but there's no lack of other Internet Protocol (IP) technologies, proprietary and standards-based, either here or imminent. In fact, many have the potential to significantly outperform the current WiMax. And because providers and carriers seldom move fast, many could just skip this little WiMax revolution to wait for the next, better thing.

WiMax certification is a true milestone, and with the large number of companies waiting to get certification, the offerings will only grow, according to ABI Research senior analyst for mobile wireless, Phil Solis. ABI has studies out this week on WiMax chips and the market for WiMax equipment. However, the recently ratified 802.16e — which provides not only better signal penetration but also a truly mobile WiMax — could lead many companies to delay any deployment until they can get that precious mobility.

802.16e would provide mobility almost like a cell network, with hand-off happening even as a user moves connections from one base station to another. Under current fixed WiMax/802.16-2004 there is "simple" mobility while users stay connected to one base station's signal. It's not something you could use in a car.

Further complicating things is another possible mobile standard, the almost forgotten 802.20. Solis has heard it may be heading for a comeback. He says, "Many companies had abandoned 802.20 to support 802.16e," but the 802.20 spec could get a "new lease on life."  This is because there's a proposal that it be based on FLASH-OFDM, a mobile wireless broadband technology created by Flarion. That company was recently acquired by wireless powerhouse Qualcomm. With Qualcomm at the helm, 802.20 could become a contender, in much the same way that Intel's backing helped solidify WiMax months before it was finished. 802.20 could deliver mobility such that a user could be moving on a bullet train and never notice hand-off as they switch from base station to base station on the network.

Visant Strategies senior analyst Andy Fuertes believes FLASH-OFDM is just one of many technologies that could be WiMax alternatives, some of which he's careful to point out wouldn't even be considered traditional "wireless broadband."

"If you're looking at an opportunity — you're a start-up or existing vendors — there's others that might be better" for you, says Fuertes. Take, for example, the TD-SCDMA standard that will power connections for over 100 million subscribers in the People's Republic of China alone by 2010. Those networks should be rolling out this year.

Visant's latest study says fixed WiMax is going to sell 7.2 million units per year by 2010, but that's less than commercialized FLASH-OFDM (13 million), even without factoring 802.20 in as a standard. Even UMTS-TDD will sell $2 billion in equipment by then. (UMTS-TDD was developed by IPWireless.)

"No one has a runaway lead" in wireless broadband, says Fuertes, adding "the real volume is mobile," but 802.16e is months away from testing, let alone certification, and he considers 802.20 a wildcard that may never make it past the meeting stage at IEEE.

The time it takes to test it all is the key issue. "The carriers need time to test," says Fuertes. "They don't do anything quickly. They'll put things through rigorous technology and commercial trials, and those trials could be 12 to 24 months."

Ultimately, he says, carriers will probably wait. "They don't want just a standard," he says. "They want mobility." Some countries aren't even waiting, as evidenced by the WiBro deployment in South Korea, the first commercialization of 802.16e long before it gets any testing from a consortium like the WiMax Forum.

ABI's Solis says that WiMax as a whole, fixed and mobile, will likely win out over all the competition. "There's room for all of these technologies for different applications," he says. "But WiMax has the best chances, just from the support it has in the industry from all sorts of vendors, chip manufacturers and mobile operators."

Originally published on .

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