WiMax seen getting a slow start

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Motorola Inc. is betting on WiMax to spur the roll out of broadband wireless services. But don't expect a revolution to happen overnight, a senior company executive said.

By 2009, there will be 3.8 million WiMax subscribers in Asia, with most of them concentrated in Japan and South Korea, said Simon Leung, president of Motorola Asia-Pacific, citing analyst forecasts in a news conference at the CommunicAsia exhibition in Singapore. That number represents a tiny sliver of Asia's market for wireless services -- hardly the kind of number that gets telecommunication equipment vendors excited.

But they are excited, as a walk around the CommunicAsia exhibition shows. For example, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. is showing a live demonstration of mobile WiMax at its booth. The demonstration, which includes a laptop with a WiMax adaptor in its PC Card slot, and several WiMax-equipped PDAs (personal digital assistants), showed how the broadband wireless technology can be used for a range of services, including video on-demand and Web surfing.

WiMax is a wireless technology that promises faster connections over a greater area than is possible with wireless LAN technology, like Wi-Fi. Fixed-wireless and mobile versions of WiMax are in development, with the fixed-wireless version seen as a replacement for wired broadband connections such as cable and DSL (digital subscriber line), and the mobile version pitched as a complement to cellular services.

Samsung's mobile WiMax technology is capable of downlink speeds up to 10.2M bps (bits per second) to terminals travelling at 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour). By 2007, Samsung plans to push downlink speeds higher, to a maximum of nearly 40M bps, said Hwan Woo Chung, vice president of the company's Mobile WiMax Group, in an interview at the CommunicAsia exhibition in Singapore.

While hardware makers are ready for widespread adoption of WiMax, operators have to figure out how the technology fits into their business plans. "To put in the infrastructure is only one part," Motorola's Leung said.

One key application for WiMax will be VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol). The prospect of free phone calls made over WiMax has many suggesting the technology could displace cellular technologies. "A lot of people think WiMax is going to take over the world; we don't believe that," Leung said.

Instead, Motorola envisions operators running WiMax alongside other technologies, such as Wi-Fi and cellular services. In some cases, such as emerging markets or start-up operators, WiMax may be used to provide a service that completes with established providers. But Motorola sees the technology's most important role as a "complementary offering," Leung said.

Samsung's Chung takes a more aggressive view. Analyst forecasts, such as those cited by Leung, are "defensive" and do not take into account the potential of mobile WiMax services, he said.

"We are creating a new market," Chung said, noting that six operators plan to launch commercial mobile WiMax services this year. In an effort to convince more operators to use mobile WiMax, Samsung is offering to develop client devices that meet their specific requirements.

Those devices could include dual-mode handsets, capable of supporting cellular and WiMax networks, as well as consumer electronics devices, such as an MP3 player with WiMax support. "These could be the killer applications in the market," he said.

But convincing operators that adopting WiMax won't jeopardize their existing investments in cellular infrastructure is not an easy sell. "The big operators who have invested a lot of money, they are struggling with [the question of] which way they should go," Chung said.

CommunicAsia runs through Friday, June 23.

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