WiMax in 2010: Too little, too late?

WiMax has been promised "any day now" for years.

By the end of 2010, users in more than 80 U.S. cities may be able to ditch their cable modems, T1 setups and DSL lines -- and the Wi-Fi routers that go with them -- in favor of WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) broadband wireless technology.

Wait, haven't we heard that before? WiMax has been promised "any day now" for years, but WiMax vendors such as Clearwire Communications LLC have suffered numerous delays in rolling out services. A recent ramp-up in Clearwire deployments bodes well for WiMax, but it may not have the chance to fully get off the ground before a competing technology called Long-Term Evolution (LTE) does it in.

Craig Mathias, principal analyst at Farpoint Group and a Computerworld columnist, sees WiMax taking a minority stake in the wireless broadband future. "LTE will eventually be a combined broadband voice/data solution that can do everything that WiMax can and more," he said via e-mail.

Mathias believes that LTE could get up to 80% of the global market share in future cellular installations. "This leaves WiMax with a potential market share that cannot exceed 20% -- but that's still a huge number, assuming 4 billion users around 2020 or so," he said. "You do the math. The opportunity is nothing to sneeze at."

The promise of WiMax

Clearwire and partners like Intel, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cisco want to change the last networking mile in the same way that Wi-Fi changed the last 100 feet of networking: by complementing or possibly replacing the existing technologies.

WiMax can cover up to 31 square miles instead of the few hundred square feet per access point provided by the more familiar 802.11g and 802.11n Wi-Fi technologies. In theory, WiMax can also deliver more than 75Mbit/sec. data-transfer speeds. In practice, it doesn't have either that range or that speed. But with real-world speeds of up to 9Mbit/sec., it's about as fast as today's standard 802.11g (though not as fast as 802.11n), and it offers far greater range than any Wi-Fi technology.

Arthur Giftakis, vice president of engineering at Towerstream Corp., a national WiMax provider for businesses, believes WiMax will deliver "high-speed mobile services that consumers and business users alike are demanding more and more," such as the ability to watch sports highlights on a laptop on the train or download apps on a handheld device. "WiMax will enable you to do those things faster than previous technologies," he said in an e-mail interview.

WiMax incorporates quality of service technologies for prioritizing network traffic, and that is particularly important for voice-over-IP and video applications, noted Joel Payne, vice president of engineering and operations at Sparkplug Inc., a national Internet service provider serving the business market. In contrast, Wi-Fi access points can be overwhelmed by multiple clients demanding simultaneous access. "The WiMax protocol will be important for applications that require a lot of data to be transmitted on time, and to decrease packet loss and latency," said Payne via e-mail.

Jesse Jones, owner of Matanuska Wireless, a data communications company in Palmer, Alaska, agreed, citing Internet Protocol television as a technology that can greatly benefit from improved quality of service. "IPTV via WiMax is one of the most exciting developments," Jones said in an e-mail interview. However, he added, "there is no word yet" on when the first working IPTV via WiMax models will be available.

How fast, how far, how much?

Just how high-speed is WiMax? The honest answer is "it depends."

"Speed and coverage area depend on several factors, such as frequency, terrain and tower height," Jones explained. "Any amateur radio operator or electrical engineer can tell you that propagation characteristics vary significantly based on frequency." In other words, a deployment on 700 MHz will have a different coverage area than one based on 2.3 GHz or 3.65 GHz.

Further, "the flat, open fields of Kansas will see different coverage on 3.65 GHz than my neighborhood nestled at the base of three mountain ranges in Alaska," he continued. A base station mounted 40 feet high on a tower will reach far fewer subscribers than if it was mounted 80 feet high. And the amount of throughput users see on a wireless connection is directly related to the signal quality, Jones said. "You really can't make general statements related to speed and coverage because not every deployment is the same."

Clearwire reports that its WiMax users are seeing average speeds of 4Mbit/sec. to 6Mbit/sec., with bursts exceeding 15Mbit/sec. -- about the same throughput that DSL services provide. To get that level of performance, you can expect to pay about as much as you currently do for DSL.

Although WiMax offers no huge speed advantage over today's technologies, pricing may be a selling point. Towerstream's Giftakis said, "I can confirm that our business customers will be paying less than market T1 prices to get WiMax. On the consumer side, Clearwire is offering service from $10 for a day to $50 for a month. I don't expect this will drastically change in the near term."

WiMax, Wi-Fi or both?

To access WiMax, you're going to have a wide variety of hardware choices, including notebooks, netbooks, handhelds and mobile Internet devices with built-in WiMax radios, according to Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing for WiMax at Intel Corp. "Numerous embedded WiMax laptops based on Intel Centrino 2 processor technology are now available," she said via e-mail. In addition, USB modems will bring WiMax into your home or office, replacing your wired Internet connection.

But WiMax won't necessarily replace Wi-Fi. WiMax/Wi-Fi translators, such as Cradlepoint Inc.'s Clear Spot router, can create a local Wi-Fi network from a WiMax signal. That Cradlepoint device, which is available now, allows any existing, off-the-shelf Wi-Fi device to connect to a Clearwire WiMax network, said Coppernoll. "The Clear Spot creates a personal Wi-Fi hot spot that travels with consumers anywhere they happen to be within Clearwire's mobile WiMax service area," she said. Using it, people can avoid local Wi-Fi hot spot fees -- and, as WiMax rollouts continue, they might be able to pick up WiMax service in areas where they can't find a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Other companies are also bridging the gap between WiMax's 802.16 and Wi-Fi's 802.11 protocols. Cisco Systems Inc., for instance, plans to introduce devices with that capability under its Linksys brand within the next six months.

Wi-Fi Alliance executive director Edgar Figueroa also sees WiMax and Wi-Fi working hand in glove rather than the newer technology replacing the older. "While WiMax provides excellent range, Wi-Fi's performance profile and power consumption traits make it the right networking technology for the local area," he said in an e-mail interview. "As we're seeing today on the cellular side, WiMax providers will also look to Wi-Fi as an alternative connection to migrate users from scarce licensed spectrum -- and users will gravitate to Wi-Fi for its affordability."

When can I get WiMax?

Clearwire's WiMax service, known as Clear, is available in four large U.S. cities today -- Baltimore, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore. -- and in 10 smaller cities in Texas, Idaho and Washington. Rollouts in Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle, Honolulu and Charlotte are also scheduled for this year. The company plans to offer service to as many as 120 million customers in 80 U.S. markets, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Houston and San Francisco, by the end of 2010.

While Clearwire gets the lion's share of WiMax publicity, it's far from the only company in the WiMax broadcasting business. AT&T Inc., for example, has rolled out WiMax service in Alaska for residents of Anchorage and Juneau. And Intel is working with Clearwire to launch the "WiMax Innovation Network" in California's Silicon Valley to serve as a test environment for mobile application developers at companies like Google Inc.

Although most of today's WiMax rollouts are aimed at urban areas, smaller wireless ISPs are bringing WiMax to areas where there is demand for broadband but not much in the way of a wired infrastructure to deliver the high-speed Internet goods. For example, DigitalBridge Communications Corp., a rural WiMax operator based in Ashburn, Va., and Open Range Communications Inc. in Greenwood Village, Colo., are using funds from the $7.2 billion rural broadband stimulus program to build rural WiMax infrastructures in their service areas.

But mass WiMax deployments are still not moving quickly. "AT&T has had some difficulty with deployments in Anchorage and Juneau, and we all have heard about Clearwire's Portland, Oregon, deployment," which took almost a year longer than the company had first predicted, observed Matanuska Wireless owner Jones.

"I think the learning curve is what has been slowing down the growth nationwide," Jones said. "As more and more networks are being deployed, the manufacturers are listening to feedback coming in from the field, making the necessary adjustments and releasing new products." Jones said he expects to see more visible progress next year. "As standards are locked in and equipment is fine-tuned, look for deployments to grow both in size and location."

Clearwire declined to speak on the record about why its WiMax rollout has gone so slowly or why it expects deployment to speed up now. But Farpoint Group's Mathias sees funding as a problem for Clearwire's WiMax deployment moving forward. "There's an issue relating to how much additional money Clearwire will need to raise to do the real nationwide buildout needed to get to the critical mass that appeals to business users," he said.

The LTE threat

While WiMax has been slowly ramping up, LTE has been playing catch-up. Long-Term Evolution, like WiMax, is a 4G wireless data transfer technology that promises similar ranges and performance. Unlike WiMax, which is based on an IEEE standard, LTE is driven by a loose collection of telecommunications companies that support the existing Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) standard.

GSM vendors control approximately 80% of the worldwide mobile market today, according to ABI Research. These carriers see LTE, an outgrowth of GSM that is designed to be backward-compatible with it, as the obvious next step for their networks. "It's the logical upgrade path for both GSM and UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), and for broadband data services like HSPA (High Speed Packet Access)," said Mathias. Even Verizon Wireless, a CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) carrier, is lining up behind LTE, he noted.

"The cellular carriers are on an evolutionary path to LTE, [but] it is difficult to figure out when LTE will be a significant competitor and have material impact on WiMax adoption," Peter Stanforth, chief technology officer and co-founder of Spectrum Bridge Inc., an online market for wireless spectrum, said in an e-mail. While WiMax is finally gaining critical mass, LTE is still taking its first steps. AT&T, for instance, expects to make LTE service commercially available in 2011. Verizon has a faster timetable, saying it plans to have networks in 25 to 30 cities in 2010.

"It is true several carriers have said that they are going to start the LTE rollout soon, but when will it have enough coverage to be significant?" Stanforth asked. "If it's just a few base stations in a few major cities in order to say 'We have deployed LTE,' will consumers know or care?"

In an ABI research report from the second quarter of 2009, senior analyst Nadine Manjaro wrote, "Vendors will only begin shipping base station equipment in significant quantities in 2010, followed by full commercial launches in 2011." While "many operators have been talking about re-use of existing equipment," ABI expects that "most ... base stations will have completely new baseband and RF components, because operators will generally try to keep the new LTE networks separate from their legacy networks," she wrote.

ABI predicts that there will be at best 34 million LTE users at the end of 2011, with perhaps twice as many WiMax users. And Adlane Fellah, an analyst at telecommunications research firm Maravedis Inc., even speculated that carriers who intend to deploy LTE in a few years might turn to WiMax in the short term to take pressure off their 3G networks.

Although LTE is lagging behind WiMax today and will likely do so for the next few years, it's far from certain that WiMax will win this fight in the long run. "To LTE's credit, WiMax's head start has lessened, and LTE has the support of most major mobile operators," said Daryl Schoolar, principal analyst for wireless infrastructure at research firm Current Analysis Inc., in an e-mail exchange.

"WiMax, on the other hand, has in most cases been the technology of choice for new market entrants -- Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators," Schoolar continued. "This gives LTE the advantage, as its operators often have deeper pockets and established relationships with the end user. Both attributes are needed to get a new network up and running."

Unless WiMax deployment rates speed up, LTE will become the dominant 4G data network by 2015, predicts ABI Research principal analyst Phillip Solis. Farpoint Group's Mathias concurs. "LTE will have the footprint, services, and carrier and vendor support to make almost everyone happy, especially when coupled with Wi-Fi, which it will often be," he said. "WiMax isn't going away, but its opportunities for growth will be severely limited, and I don't think that there's much that can be done about that either from a business or a technology perspective."

Looking ahead

Stanforth sees a role for WiMax as a public service, recalling the failure of many municipal Wi-Fi efforts, such as those in San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis and Springfield, Ill., and speculating that WiMax might be better suited to the task. "Muni Wi-Fi flopped primarily because of both the lousy coverage of Wi-Fi and the cost to even get that -- it took 60-plus Wi-Fi [access points] per square mile to implement using a typical mesh architecture, whereas a single WiMax AP will probably cover well over a square mile. The economics of 'Muni WiMax' might make sense," he said.

Lori Sylvia, executive vice president of marketing at Red Bend Software Inc., which makes WiMax device-management software, thinks WiMax service delivery and infrastructure costs will need to decrease in order for WiMax to compete with DSL and cable. When all providers, no matter what technology they use, can provide multiple Mbit/sec. speeds, "then the buying criteria becomes like any other Internet service: coverage and cost," Sylvia said via e-mail.

Brough Turner, an independent wireless analyst and blogger, isn't optimistic. In an e-mail, Turner wrote, "The problem is WiMax products can never achieve the volumes associated with the GSM family of technologies (GSM, UMTS, HSPA, LTE). As a result, WiMax will always cost more to deploy, and WiMax handsets will be more expensive than comparable GSM family handsets. It doesn't matter if WiMax is 'better' than LTE or not, or that WiMax is ahead today. The installed base of GSM family technologies generates very high volumes for GSM family products. As those products migrate to LTE, LTE product volumes will drive costs well below WiMax costs."

It's not necessarily an either/or proposition, however. "In my opinion, LTE and WiMax will co-exist, as they are actually targeting different markets," said Schoolar of Current Analysis. "LTE for the most part is an extension of the current mobile ecosystem. It will primarily be used to do what we are doing today with 3G, but better. WiMax's primary market, however, will be more about fixed and portable services. As much as I hate to say it, WiMax really will be Wi-Fi on steroids. While WiMax's head start over LTE has diminished, I don't think it matters as much as people think, as the two technologies are running a separate race."

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, a Computerworld blogger, has been writing about technology since CP/M was the dominant desktop operating system. You can learn more about Steven and read some of his other stories on his Practical Technology site.

This story, "WiMax in 2010: Too little, too late?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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