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

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.

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