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WiMAX -- Where are we at?

WiMAX, the long-awaited wireless Internet service, is still riddled with issues but continues to make progress and will debut in two cities before the end of the year.

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.

For more information on the evolving WiMAX arena
Read the latest news on WiMAX: Sprint, Clearwire terminate WiMax deployment agreement
So, anyway, commercial WiMAX service is not yet available in the U.S. Sprint has, however, announced its Xohm (pronounced "home", I think) service, and it is still scheduled to begin operation before the end of the year in Chicago and Washington, D.C. -- interestingly, also the first two cities to get commercial cellular service back in 1983. Clearwire is also proceeding with plans for commercial WiMAX deployments next year. And I should mention here that I'm talking about mobile WiMAX. The original objective for WiMAX was to standardize fixed microwave systems -- that is, both ends of a given connection are stationary. Mobile WiMAX is based on a new IEEE standard (802.16e-2005) and allows full mobility. The mobile WiMAX spec is finished, but no products have been certified as of this writing.

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.

Craig Mathias

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 craig@farpointgroup.com.
This was last published in November 2007

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