WiMax - don't believe the hype

By Matthew Broersma, Techworld.com |  Mobile & Wireless

The emerging WiMax mobile wireless standard is gaining support among telecom companies, but there is a risk of it becoming over-hyped say industry observers.

The fixed side of WiMax is well along the path to commercialization, but mobile WiMax will not be in wide use until after 2009, according to forthcoming research from Gartner Inc. "It's very easy, given the huge amount of WiMax hype at the moment, to see WiMax as the next big thing after 3G," said Gartner analyst Ian Keene. "But that's not the case - it's a fixed wireless solution, an alternative to DSL. Mobile WiMax is a new cellular technology, and it's got a heck of a long way to go."

WiMax, based on the IEEE 802.16 group of standards, is intended to replace two distinct types of wireless broadband technology: fixed wireless, which could compete with or supplement ADSL, cable and leased lines, and mobile wireless, which makes broadband speeds available anywhere in a coverage area, including moving vehicles or public places. Mobile WiMax could complement 3G and Wi-Fi hotspots.

The standard is designed to make equipment less expensive and more interoperable, which would improve the business case for building networks. Equipment using the fixed 802.16d standard will arrive this year, and be certified next year. A relatively easy upgrade will add on mobile 802.16e capabilities, the WiMax Forum promises, but 802.16e equipment will not be ready for another three years or so.

The WiMax Forum, the industry group promoting WiMax, got a boost on Monday when telcos BT Group PLC and France Telecom SA became members, along with Qwest Communications International Inc., Reliance Telecom and XO Communications Inc. The official support of BT and France Telecom will be valuable, since service providers are necessarily WiMax's target customers, but both operators see WiMax as a supplement to their existing wired networks, according to industry analysts.

Operators who want mobile broadband are more ambiguous in their attitudes to WiMax. Verizon Communications Inc., Sprint Corp. and Nextel Communications Inc., for example, have all said they are interested in mobile broadband but none are WiMax Forum members.

Since February, Nextel has been conducting trials of a proprietary technology from Flarion in the southeastern United States, and the company emphasized that mobility is key to its offering. "This is for customers who don't want to be tied to their desk or their office. You can go anywhere and use this service," said Nextel spokesman Chris Grandis. "It's beyond 3G."

Nextel also offers a wireless data card for laptops, operating at dial-up speeds, and plans to use Motorola Inc.'s WiDEN technology to quadruple bandwidth, in the second half of this year.

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