Mobile Wimax: the future or a dead end?

Asia Pacific has led the world both by the number of mobile Wimax deployments and the proportion to fixed Wimax deployments in the region. But is Asia pioneering with its emphasis on mobile rollouts or is it heading up an evolutionary dead end?

According to Maravedis, as of June last year there were 332 Wimax networks deployed worldwide, of which 42% were for fixed Wimax, compared to 37% for mobile Wimax (the remaining 21% were proprietary networks).

But among Asia's 79 Wimax deployments, 36 were mobile Wimax and just 26 were fixed Wimax.

Cintia Garza, 4GCounts team leader at Maravedis, said the discrepancy was down to the fact that regulatory conditions in Asia are generally much more favorable for the deployment of mobile Wimax than in the rest of the world.

In some major markets, including Brazil and Canada, regulators will not allow mobile Wimax services even where the 2.3- and 2.5-GHz bands most suitable for mobile Wimax have been released.

Most other countries have yet to release these spectrum bands, leaving operators forced to use the 3.5-GHz spectrum band, which is more suited for fixed deployments.

There are some exceptions in Asia, Garza said. "Some operators in Asia have deployed Wimax based upon the 802.16e-2005 standard but are providing fixed services only as mobility is not allowed in the country."

One example is Pakistan's Wateen Telecom, which has deployed fixed Wimax in the 2.5-GHz band.

Garza said mobile Wimax will definitely be the dominant technology going forward, in both Asia and worldwide. "The trend is toward mobility," she said.

Indeed, despite fixed Wimax's global lead in terms of deployments, mobile Wimax has caught up by users. In Q3 2009, the number of mobile Wimax subscribers overtook fixed Wimax subscribers for the first time, with 1.45 million compared to 1.3 million customers, according to Maravedis' 4GCounts database.

Mobile Wimax is also growing at a far faster rate - over the same quarter, subscribers grew by 47%, compared to just 13% for fixed Wimax.

That said, Garza believes that India and Indonesia will be two countries crucial to the proliferation of Wimax. But Indonesian regulators do not allow mobile Wimax services, and India has also settled on fixed Wimax.

Vendors agree that despite some hitches, Asia is a strong market. "Asia represents a growth opportunity for Wimax," Alvarion VP of marketing Ashish Sharma said. "We expect Wimax to play a major role in building the next-generation broadband infrastructure in the region."

Alvarion has so far won Wimax equipment supply contracts from Asian operators, including Taiwan's VMAX and Chunghwa Telecom and India's Aircel and Bharti Airtel.

And the nascent 802.16m standard, once it matures, is expected to increase the proportion of mobile Wimax networks.

But not everybody believes that the future of mobile Wimax will be so rosy. A recent report commissioned by Wimax and LTE vendor Eden Rock Communications found that operators should follow an LTE upgrade path rather than heading toward 802.16m.

This applies to both established operators looking to jump from 3G to a 4G standard, and greenfield operators rolling out Wimax networks of either stripe.

"Eden Rock believes that small greenfield operators should continue to deploy Wimax 'e' in the short-to-mid term but should migrate in the longer term to LTE instead of 802.16m," president Chaz Immendorf said.

The company noted in a recent research report that LTE has several advantages, including a larger developer ecosystem and several technology advantages.

On the surface, the 802.16m standard shares many similarities to LTE - it allows for larger spectrum allocations (up to 100 MHz) and the use of higher order MIMO schemes. The specifications allocate many of the same spectrum bands.

But the standardization process for 802.16m is already on the decline, in a process that does not bode well for the future of the standard, the report states.

Likewise, no small Wimax chipset companies have announced future support for 802.16m and no infrastructure supplier will contractually commit to upgrading its 802.16e product to 802.16m. Even on the telecom side, few greenfield operators are deploying Wimax for mobile broadband services.

"It is important for the Wimax operators of today to pay particular care in protecting themselves from the consolidating ecosystem and to begin to map out their long-term network evolution plans," Immendorf said.

Maravedis, meanwhile, acknowledges that 802.16m has yet to gain acceptance among Wimax operators. But the standard has already received support from chipmakers Beceem and Intel and vendors such as Samsung, Huawei, ZTE, Alvarion and Cisco.

Clearwire has announced it is considering preliminary 802.16m trials in the US in 2011, and Yota seems equally likely to become one of the first 801.16m adopters.

The standard is due to be ratified later this year. Maravedis predicts the first 802.16m dongles in late 2011 and more widespread commercial deployments from 2012.

Research firm In-Stat, meanwhile, predicts that while LTE will become the 4G standard of choice, mobile Wimax's lead-to-market will allow it to build a considerable lead over the next few years.

Even by 2013, there will be more than five times as many mobile Wimax subscribers than LTE subscribers, In-Stat said.

In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee said LTE has a number of issues to work out - including a shortage of spectrum, signal-to-noise ratio and the lack of a patent and royalty pool - before it will be able to claim its place as the dominant 4G technology.

"It's clear that the shift toward 4G LTE will be gradual and protracted," he said.