The future of Wimax: things

One way or another, this is going to be mobile Wimax's big year. It will be the year the operator rollouts will happen, products will be certified and apps will be developed. And this is the year where we'll get the first indications of whether Wimax can deliver on its promises of cost-effective, spectrally efficient, ubiquitous wireless broadband.


Or not.


Hence the first four words of this column. Because mobile Wimax could also prove to be the fool's errand that Qualcomm's Jeff Belk told you it would be years ago. In fact, the smart money says that, by the end of this year, the media will be full of stories of less-than-expected take-up, higher-than-expected rollout costs, poor choice of overpriced terminals, customer service issues, sluggish network performance, dead spots, etc, and all the bloggers who have been slagging off the technology from the start will sneer, "Told you so."


You know, like when 3G first rolled out.


Maybe that's why it's hard for me to write off mobile Wimax as a lost cause. At least for now. It's probably because I have no stake in the outcome, but I've seen enough technologies go through the hype/disappointment/reality check/eventual uptake cycle to figure that mobile Wimax has some kind of future, even if it's not the future Wimax proponents originally had in mind.


Some industry analysts have compared Wimax to the Iridium experience - a great idea that failed to anticipate the evolution of existing technology that eventually sucked the life from its original business case. That doesn't quite work for me, if only because Iridium was spearheaded by a small consortium and based on a technology whose product development cycle is notoriously slow. It's true that 3G is fast evolving to the point where it could compete against Wimax's "ubiquitous broadband" proposition more strongly than Wimax proponents imagined when they first started working on it at the IEEE.


On the other hand, that's sort of like saying if there's three shoe shops in town, there's no point in opening a fourth one. Which might be true - depending on how everyone feels about the product and service quality of the existing shops. But sure, whatever the new shop has to offer, it had better be good. And at the moment, it's not yet clear what mobile Wimax will be able to do better than 3G and, in the next couple of years, post-3G.


Beyond laptops



However, one thing Wimax should be better at than 3G, for now, is actually getting on the internet. It's built for IP networks, and while cellular is heading to all-IP with LTE and UMB, we won't see significant deployments until 2010.


The question is how to leverage that. And the answer may be to not stay focused on laptop users looking for a quick connection, but broaden the scope to look at what else is going to be connected to the net in the next couple of years as we head toward the 4G horizon.


Consumer electronics, for example. We're already seeing things like digital cameras and portable gaming devices outfitted with wireless connectivity. If all they need to get online is an IP connection, Wimax might be the better option. Portable navigation devices are another possibility. PNDs are a pain to update and hardly interactive - stick a Wimax chip in them and see what happens. Oki Electric Industry and Alpine Electronics have already done it - they demoed a car navigation system with streaming content based on mobile Wimax at CES 2008.


And then there's M2M apps like smart meters. The cellular sector has only made token efforts in the M2M sector thus far - Wimax could step in and claim that market for itself.


Granted, M2M is a low-ARPU business - but then so is India's cellular market. And the number of machines and devices needing connectivity is only going to get larger in the next decade or so. Niche markets may not be sexy - but they can be profitable (as Iridium eventually found out the hard way). If the future of Wimax is connecting things instead of people, at least it's a future.