Mobile WiMAX on the verge

After years of speculation, mobile WiMAX has finally become a viable option for network operators offering high-speed data services. While some operators have begun to deploy the technology in recent months, the lack of voice services will likely hamper mobile WiMAX's short-term appeal. In addition, a few key longer-term questions remain. For example, how will operators offer mobile WiMAX-based data services within the context of mobile voice technologies‾  Also, to what extent will network operators in developing and rural markets succeed in capturing market share by replacing fixed-line applications, such as DSL, with WiMAX-based services‾

Clearly, mobile WiMAX has the lead in being first-to-market with the next generation of products using mobile radio technology based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA).  However, two other competitive technologies, also based on OFDMA, will likely challenge WiMAX's leadership position in the coming years.  One of these technologies is 3G Long-term Evolution (LTE), which seems likely to pick up the reins of radio technology from GSM/W-CDMA/HSPA.  Fortunately for those operators that have adopted mobile WiMAX, LTE-based products likely will not be released until 2010 at the earliest, except possibly in Japan.
Another technology that most likely will use OFDMA is Revision C to the CDMA 1X-EV-DO standard.  The Revision C standard, recently renamed Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB), is scheduled to be published in April 2007 and have commercial availability in early 2009; this schedule also affords mobile WiMax a few years of lead-time.

Longer term, it remains to be seen whether the wireless industry can support these three mobile technology ecosystems. Today, one mobile ecosystem, GSM/W-CDMA, accounts for about 95% of net additions, up from 75% three years ago. With this dominant subscriber base, it seems likely that GSM/W-CDMA's successor (3G LTE) will give mobile WiMAX its strongest competition in the future.

Mobile WiMAX essentially must start from the beginning as a technology and ecosystem, and much of its success in capturing subscribers in the future will depend on how operators that deploy it are able to redefine the mobile services market.  Some approaches these vendors may take could include focusing on rich media and data applications rather than attempting to compete head-to-head against traditional mobile services and business models.

Despite these various challenges, some network operators have already had some success in developed markets with the technology.  The WiMAX market received a large boost in August 2006 when Sprint announced it would allocate approximately $800 million in 2007 and between $1.5 and $2 billion in 2008 on capital spending related to WiMAX in the US.  Sprint announced that Motorola, Nokia and Samsung would provide infrastructure and client equipment.  Dell'Oro expects that service providers (including Sprint) in developed regions will earn WiMAX revenues from a monthly service fee plus sales of associated content and applications.  We have assumed that WiMAX-based voice services will not generate a material amount of revenue for service providers in the short term.

Korea has been a key early adopter of mobile WiMax technology in the form of WiBro.  WiBro services are offered in urban 'hot zones' as a complement to existing mobile high-speed data services.  Service providers in Korea will be among the first to determine how a WiMAX-type service can integrate with, or complement, a 3G-type voice and data service based on CDMA and W-CDMA.  Moreover, fixed versions of WiMAX and other fixed wireless broadband technologies have been serving the broadband access market in developing regions for years, and we expect that 'fixed' broadband access will continue to be an important application for mobile WiMAX.  Service providers often find it less expensive to offer broadband services wirelessly, since they need not lay wires to each potential customer.  Avoiding this infrastructure cost appeals particularly to service providers in developing regions where customers are often extremely price-sensitive.

 

We predict that the market for mobile WiMAX will reach $328 million in 2007 and that it will grow to nearly $2 billion in 2011 for a compounded annual growth rate of 57% (see chart to the right).  Despite this strong growth, we expect that WiMAX will account for just 4% of the market for mobile infrastructure equipment.  We are assuming that network operators will market WiMAX almost exclusively as a broadband data service.  While VoIP over WiMAX is certainly possible, we believe that most network operators will not rely on this service during the next five years to generate ARPU; rather, they likely will focus on establishing coverage and tapping the somewhat unproven market for mobile broadband.  The lack of voice services will limit mobile WiMAX's market potential in the short term.  It will likely take several years to build the coverage and economies of scale for the handsets that will make voice services over WiMAX viable.  We forecast that mobile WiMAX subscriptions will grow from one million in 2007 to 24 million in 2011, which will account for less than 1% of the market for mobile subscriptions.

We forecast that a total of 40,000 WiMAX base transceiver stations (BTS) will ship in 2007 and 2008 and that a macro BTS will cost $36,000 in 2007 and $30,000 in 2008.  We expect macro BTS prices to decline to $25,000 in 2011 (see chart xx).  Since we measure unit shipments when they generate revenue, there may be a significant difference between the date of the actual shipment and the date the shipment generates revenue for the equipment vendor.  We expect that most macro BTS will ship with two transceivers since most service providers will want to deploy WiMAX with MIMO antenna configuration to increase range and throughput.

These figures will amount to less than half of what a service provider, such as Sprint, would spend in total capital spending because they do not include installation, cell site improvements, antenna equipment, cabling, operations and management software, or enhancements to the backhaul network.  Also, we would expect a delay between the time a service provider commits to spending the capital and the time an equipment vendor is able to recognize revenues.

In spite of competitive and market challenges, mobile WiMAX has created a buzz in the market and could be on the verge of becoming an important niche for mobile services.  At the very least, mobile WiMAX has advanced the technological development of the entire market by pushing other technology ecosystems into the next generation of radio access technology based on OFDMA.

Greg Collins is VP of mobility infrastructure research at Dell'Oro Group - www.delloro.com

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