Guest Column: Whither WiMAX?

By Ian Channing, guest editor

It is doubtful if any wireless technology (with the possible exception of 3G) has been as hyped as much as WiMAX. From the outset the technology's proponents trumpeted its advantages in terms of coverage and data speed over other wireless broadband solutions. Cooler heads subsequently prevailed and many of the overblown claims of the early years have been significantly modified. So what are the real prospects for WiMAX in a straight fight with other wireless solutions?

Certainly WiMAX is enjoying some success. In this issue we reported that the prospects for the technology in Russia look excellent and a Bulgarian operator is deploying a new WiMAX network provided by Huawei. There are also WiMAX networks being deployed in France, the U.K. and the Baltic States. But closer examination of these stories reveals that in the majority of cases WiMAX is being used to provide broadband services to users in areas where cable and fibre are not economically viable options. There is no doubt that in its role as 'Wireless DSL' WiMAX can provide an excellent and cost effective delivery mechanism for broadband services. What is in doubt is whether it can ever be a mobile broadband service that competes directly with existing services such as 3G.

The analyst community is divided on the future of WiMAX. Juniper Research, in a recent report, forecast that mobile WiMAX 802.16e would begin to take off over the 2010 to 2013 period, exceeding 80 million mobile subscribers globally by 2013. The Yankee Group is more cautious. Although the analyst group expects several large-scale national WiMAX deployments in the current year, it is forecasting just 37 million subscribers globally by 2011.

There is a general agreement that for mobile WiMAX to take off vendors will have to produce the right kind of devices at the right price points and WiMAX operators will have to find a way of differentiating their offerings from their cellular rivals. What is key, and what the WiMAX industry is watching keenly, is the progress of Sprint's planned WiMAX service, called Xohm. Due to launch this year the success or otherwise of the Sprint service will probably decide the future development of the WiMAX market.

What is certain is that WiMAX is not going to go away. Apart from anything else it has been designated an official member of the IMT2000 family by the International Telecommunications Union and is up there with technologies such as 3G Long Term Evolution. However, it has a hard row to hoe. Within the next two years the global 2G/3G subscriber base will hit three billion and will generate untold billions of dollars. Research firm Maravedis reckons the global WiMAX subscriber base at the end of Q3 2007 was 1,369,000 who collectively generated US$668 million for the first three quarters of that year. It's the numbers game stupid!