Telco's WiMax delays may lead to technology delays

By Matthew Broersma, |  Mobile & Wireless

WiMax may hold out the promise of cheap wireless broadband available anywhere, but it will face an uphill battle against increasingly popular proprietary alternatives before it can become widespread, according to a study published this week.

A Wednesday report from ABI Research found that even as WiMax backers such as Siemens AG, Alcatel SA and Intel Corp. slog on through the standardization process, demand for proprietary wireless broadband systems is growing quickly, with unit shipments to grow 50 percent from 2003 to 2004. Meanwhile, the first WiMax equipment will not make it through the certification process before the middle of next year.

"The market cannot ignore the momentum behind some of these proprietary technologies," said ABI analyst Edward Rerisi in a statement. "With equipment prices comparable or sometimes cheaper to those initially promised by WiMax, the market for these technologies is growing at an incredibly fast clip."

WiMax is seen as doing for broadband wireless what Wi-Fi did for the wireless LAN -- making it cheap and ubiquitous. The technology promises an alternative to existing broadband in urban areas, and is being tested by BT as a cheap way of blanketing remote rural areas with ADSL-like wireless services; a later update will add mobility service for laptops. In the enterprise, WiMax could allow companies to network widely-separated facilities without the need to lay cable or rely on an outside service provider.

Alcatel last week announced its first products using Intel's WiMax 802.16d chipset, which could be the first gear to arrive on the market when it arrives in the second half of this year. Testing and certification means it will not be available to the general public until a year later.

Unlike Wi-Fi, WiMax will need the backing of both large telcos and large equipment makers to succeed, according to ABI, and at the moment telcos are not rushing aboard the WiMax bandwagon. Nextel Communications Inc. and Sprint Corp., for example, two of the U.S.' biggest wireless carriers, are both licensing the spectrum needed to provide wireless broadband services, but have said they will not wait for WiMax-standard equipment if it takes too long.

Other telcos are showing a more active interest. BT Group PLC said in February it is running trials of fixed WiMax in Ballingry in Fife, Scotland, Pwllheli in Wales, Porthleven in Cornwall and Campsie in Northern Ireland, and said it would investigate the mobile WiMax 802.16e standard when it becomes available next year. 802.16e is intended to add mobile capabilities to 802.16d equipment with a simple upgrade.

"While many vendors have pledged support for WiMax, operators' plans for the technology remains guarded (while) actual spending on proprietary technologies surges," ABI noted in the report.

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