When planning these columns back at the end of last year, I had hoped at this point to be able to bring you news of actual experience with the first commercial WiMAX networks operating in the United States. OK, so even I sometimes get a wee bit optimistic about the availability of new technologies -- despite my usual rule of thumb, which involves taking whatever time period is initially proposed for said availability and doubling it. This rule has served me quite well over the years -- just look at how long it took to get critical mass for 3G, Wi-Fi and -- well, just about every major advance in wireless. New technologies are, it seems, always tough to commercialize -- even considering how far down the experience curve we are as an industry today.
To return to the carriers -- as there is no service anyway without them -- both Sprint and Clearwire face major challenges. Sprint is having financial problems, is losing cellular subscribers, and recently fired its CEO. It's my guess that, primarily for financial reasons, Sprint will spin off Xohm as a separate company over the next six months or so as the easiest way to focus on its core business while retaining a stake in the future of WiMAX. Clearwire went public this year, but it is now clear that a vast amount of additional cash is going to be required to build out a WiMAX footprint. Clearwire today operates a proprietary wireless network competing primarily as a cable/DSL alternative, but the company also recently rolled out a PC card modem to go after the mobile/nomadic opportunity. Clearwire and Sprint did have plans for a joint WiMAX venture as a means to mitigate network build-out costs, but these were recently placed on hold.
So things are going to take a little longer than we hoped. The situation gets a bit more difficult before it gets better, however. The competition in metro-area/wide-area wireless is not standing still. I still believe metro-area Wi-Fi will be a big winner once the political questions are resolved and local governments get out of the way. The GSM/UMTS world, already bolstered by HSPA, will see Long-Term Evolution (LTE -- a better name here is clearly needed) services with around 100 Mbps over the next two or three years. And there are evolutionary paths to CDMA also defined, including Ultra Mobile Broadband with an astonishing 280 Mbps peak throughput. Nevertheless, WiMAX does not have the field to itself.
My guess now is that we will indeed see commercial WiMAX available in 2008, at least in a few cities, offering 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps at $30 to $40 per month. I could be a bit high on the throughput and low on the price, but I think the WiMAX world has a winning proposition if both of these metrics are achieved. And WiMAX still has at least a small lead over the competition in terms of time to market. But even a year or two here can make a big difference with an audience that always demands more.
About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at email@example.com.