WiMax - don't believe the hype

By Matthew Broersma, Techworld.com |  Mobile & Wireless

Sprint and Verizon are toying with high-speed cellular technologies such as EV-DO while waiting to see if anything promising emerges from WiMax efforts, but could just as easily use proprietary equipment if it is more cost effective, the companies have said. "We do keep an eye on WiMax as we do all new technologies," said Sprint spokesman Charles Fleckenstein. "If it makes business sense to move forward in this area, Sprint will do so."

In Europe, where 3G rollouts are already well advanced, wireless operators such as Vodafone Group PLC and T-Mobile International AG have even less incentive to jump on board a mobile technology that is years away, said IDC analyst Jan Hein Bakkers. "We don't think there will be any standardized [mobile WiMax] products before 2007," he said. "By that time there will be a lot of Wi-Fi hotspots out there already, and operators will have more UMTS [a 3G standard] networks. I don't see WiMax bringing that much additional value."

Others predicted more service providers will get on board the WiMax bandwagon, but agreed that it is still unclear what role WiMax will play. "It's a very new technology, and operators are not absolutely certain where it fits in with the other parts of the jigsaw puzzle, vis-a-vis 3G, Wi-Fi hotspots and so on," said Infonetics analyst Richard Webb.

Fixed WiMax has a more immediate potential for success, say analysts, because it will provide services similar to existing wireless broadband, while introducing lower costs and equipment interoperability.

Small wireless ISPs such as Irish Broadband in Dublin, NextWeb Inc. in California and TowerStream Corp. on the U.S.' East coast are offering wireless services that compete with existing wired offerings. A survey published this week by ABI Research Inc. found that more than half of small wireless ISPs planned to deploy WiMax equipment as soon as it is available, in order to lower equipment costs.

Larger Western European telcos primarily want WiMax to fill in the gaps in their wired networks, the companies say. BT recently said it would use a combination of ADSL and a WiMax-like system from Alvarion Ltd. to provide broadband across 100 percent of Northern Ireland. BT has said it is interested in migrating to WiMax-standard gear.

Some analysts see this as a shrinking niche. BT announced this week it will enable another 1,128 ADSL exchanges by mid-2005, which it claims will give broadband access to 99.6 percent of U.K. businesses and households. France Telecom's ADSL will reach 90 percent of businesses and households this year, according to IDC.

Across Western Europe, about 83 percent of consumers and businesses had access to broadband last year, and in the next two years or so that will rise to 90 to 95 percent, according to IDC's Bakkers. "In Western Europe, the role of WiMax will be limited," he said.

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