WiMax in 2010: Too little, too late?

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

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Computerworld |  Mobile & Wireless, Clearwire, WiMax

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?"

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