WiMAX sliding towards the margin

Wireless industry fortune-tellers are spreading the word--2011 will be the year where the infrastructure business will see an upturn. This much anticipated revival could see sales grow to over US$40 billion in 2011, up from US$37.8 billion last year.

This return to growth, claim the soothsayers, will be triggered by operators investing in 4G deployments to boost their network capacity, largely driven by consumers' growing appetite for smartphones.

But, for the large majority of operators this investment in 4G will be to build LTE networks, as against that 'other' 4G technology WiMAX, which, with the exception of a few stalwarts, is falling out of favour.

This growing marginalisation of WiMAX, not helped by its leading advocate--Intel--dismantling its WiMAX Programme Office, is largely being caused by the lack of a burgeoning ecosystem.

The only major equipment vendors that remain involved are Motorola, Samsung and Huawei, and the two pioneering operators, Clearwire and Sprint, are now positioning WiMAX as little more than a stepping stone to LTE.

The nearly-forgotten battle for supremacy between GSM and CDMA was not won on technical merit, but on the size of the GSM ecosystem. Those involved with promoting WiMAX should have been aware of this simple lesson. Perhaps they were, but those involved failed to take advantage of the window of opportunity the technology had over LTE. 

While Intel threw its significant technical and financial clout behind WiMAX, in hindsight, did this company have the right high-level contacts within the wireless industry and operator community to persuade them to adopt WiMAX? Its lack of success within the cellular industry might lead you to believe otherwise.

Some observers point to the failure of WiMAX to capitalise on the opportunity that was on offer in India. The country had no 3G infrastructure and could have set the agenda for other emerging markets to follow. Vitally, it might also have triggered a WiMAX ecosystem by attracting equipment and terminal vendors looking to sell their products into this huge market.

Although WiMAX has achieved a level of success, notably in Taiwan and Pakistan, a growing number of its supporters are now quietly drifting away. The Russian operator Yota is the most recent and obvious deserter, having declared it would stop any further WiMAX investments and instead plough US$100 million into converting its network to LTE.

WiMAX will continue to push forward, with Africa being a potential market. But the message is becoming clear--it will turn into a niche technology, and seems destined to follow the path of CDMA. - Paul