The future Wimax leaders

Wimax is struggling to maintain momentum as the spearhead of a new generation of wireless networks more closely integrated with IT and networking. The demise of leading Wimax vendors such as Telsima and the exit from the market of Nortel, among others, have contributed to the bad press that Wimax has suffered in the last few months. 

The Wimax Forum likes to proclaim there are over 400 operators deploying or trialing Wimax in the world. Size matters. In parallel, the LTE camp claims over 100 mobile operators are now committed to LTE, including many CDMA operators.

More than 1,700 license holders have spectrum in the Wimax bands worldwide. Among these, about 470 have 50 MHz or more, or enough spectrum to consider offering broadband service profitably in the long term. Among those with plenty of spectrum, how many enjoy pockets deep enough to sustain the capex and marketing investments required to become the meaningful 4G players of tomorrow‾ This is a hard question, one to which we do not have the complete answer.

We, however, can make a partial response based on our survey of 22 Wimax operators around the world that we feel will make or break Wimax over the next two years. Some 46% of operators interviewed have 50 MHz or more of spectrum while 45% have more than $100 million in cash.

Ones that will make the cut include obvious names such as Clearwire but also operators that currently enjoy a relatively small subscriber base but for which Maravedis believes there is great potential, such as Scartel (Russia). Other 'strategic' operators include: UQ Communications (Japan), Far EasTone, BSNL and Telmex International.

Based on the operators' projections and Maravedis' estimates, we expect the top 22 players to contribute nearly 2.5 million subscribers by the end of the year - up from 1.24 million today - and close to four million by the end of 2010. A big share of these subscribers will come from large proprietary networks that are expected to convert to Wimax by 2010, such as Clearwire's in the US and Inukshuk's in Canada. Interestingly, 42% of these operators are considering or planning to deploy LTE.

CPE sales

Our findings reveal that most operators are already deploying double-play services (high-speed internet and VoIP), 25% are offering triple-play services (with video); and the remainder offer only high-speed internet. In addition, a significant number of operators are serving the business segment with VPN services. For these services the operators are generating an average ARPU of $35 for residential services and $93 for business services, with average downstream speeds of 256-512 kbps for residential users and 1-2 Mbps for the business segment.

Shipments of wireless broadband CPEs in 2008 increased 64% year-over-year to 3.6 million units. Wimax CPE shipments totaled 2.45 million units - three times more than in 2007. Shipments of both 802.16e-2005 and 802.16d-2004 CPEs rose.

Mobile Wimax equipment sales eventually are expected to largely displace fixed Wimax equipment sales. The hope for Wimax operators is to develop mass markets, and mobility is considered to be essential for mass-market acceptance.

Many Wimax operators, especially small players, have focused their service offering on the SME and business segment, mainly because the cost associated with the fixed CPEs is still too high to be affordable for the mass consumer market.

 

Networks have been dominated so far by standalone CPEs as well as PC peripherals such as USB dongles and PC cards. Embedded multimode devices are only emerging in the last few months by operators such as Scartel, which is using an HTC device.

Challenges ahead

Although the top Wimax operators enjoy the support of strong investor groups and deep pockets to offset the limited credit facilities, they are still impacted by the economic crisis. Some operators are feeling pressure from not having the right spectrum or sufficient spectrum to achieve their deployment plans.

They have been forced to delay their roll-outs as they are hoping to obtain additional spectrum assets either by allocation from the regulator or by acquisition or transfer from other license holders.

We expect three trends to shape the next few quarters:

  • During 2009-2010 Wimax will face a strong economic headwind, but its image as a more efficient, lower cost network, along with the availability of more mobile devices, will help build momentum in terms of deployments. Wimax capex investments will slow down among the many greenfield operators that have limited access to credit, including the majority of operators in the 3.5-GHz band. They will reign in their focus on the most profitable portion of the market - business customers looking for reliable connectivity.
  • Emerging and underserved markets will be a central theme for growth of Wimax despite financial constraints, since several projects have been funded and are viewed as an economic benefit. Many vendors consider Latin America and Asia as the most attractive regions. BRIC countries will have a greater influence on how Wimax is seen as a next-generation alternative in competition with LTE outside the US.
  • In the context of the deteriorating US economy, we expect Clearwire to take a cautious approach to its network deployment regardless of time to market entry advantage. We also believe that the economy and continued high price sensitivity will drive adoption of the flat-rate and flexible Clearwire 'pay-as-you-go' price model. Still too early to predict are the impacts of groundbreaking efforts including: the availability of Google's G2 Wimax phone; Comcast's femtocell marketing, which will begin in the second half of the year; an orchestrated virtual network operator push in enterprise and vertical markets; and the availability of the first 'full mobile' devices by the fourth quarter. These ingredients may spice up the so far lackluster performance of Clearwire's Wimax rollouts.

Adlane Fellah  is a the senior analyst with Maravedis,  a research and analysis firm focusing on BWA technologies including Wimax, UMB, LTE and UMB. www.maravedis-bwa.com 

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