Don't discount WiMAX--at least not yet

It's getting more difficult for me to form an opinion about the future of WiMAX.

Looking at last week's news that Clearwire will test LTE, it's easy to conclude that LTE will snuff out WiMAX. But there are some issues and initiatives bubbling under the surface that could keep WiMAX relevant in the future.

India could be the swing vote for WiMAX as a long-term consumer access technology. The decisions of newly licensed wireless broadband operators matter a great deal as India represents a market that will easily ramp up several million wireless broadband subscribers within a matter of a few years.

Should India's new operators deploy WiMAX now to tap into the high demand for broadband, or should they wait for TD-LTE, which will have a higher price tag but will conform to what the world's largest mobile operators are deploying? TD-LTE might not be ready until the second half of 2011 at the earliest.

Reliance Industries, India's industrial conglomerate that snatched up startup ISP Infotel Broadband Services after it won the lone nationwide BWA license for $2.74 billion, shook up the wireless industry by indicating it will deploy TD-LTE. Now we are hearing that it may deploy WiMAX in the 2.3 GHz band instead of TD-LTE technology because it realizes the technology isn't mature enough.

The WiMAX Forum's new director of marketing, Declan Bryne, said India is first and foremost on the forum's agenda. He correctly reckons that if operators move with WiMAX now, they will be hard pressed to convert to TD-LTE later when they are already supporting millions of subscribers.

And there are other initiatives that may make WiMAX shine, although not necessarily in the commercial operator community. WiMAX is beginning to ramp up as a key access technology for smart-grid initiatives. Last week WiMAX vendor Airspan scored an exclusive deal with LightSquared to offer utilities--which are keen on gaining spectrum to build their own smart-grid networks--a combination of WiMAX equipment and spectrum in the 1.4 GHz band. GE Electric, one of the top smart-meter makers in the U.S., is banking on WiMAX to power the smart grid. In March, GE announced a pilot program with Consumers Energy Michigan to use WiMAX-enabled smart meters. GE called it the first-ever U.S. smart-grid pilot program using WiMAX.

Byrne said the Federal Aviation Administration has approached the WiMAX Forum with a long-term project that involves using WiMAX as the standard for aviation communications in the 5091 MHz to 5150 MHz band for some 800 large U.S. airports to provide surface communications ranging from managing flight plans to video surveillance. In addition, Europe is expected to harmonize with the FAA on using WiMAX for surface communications.

Smart grid and FAA communications may not be as sexy as the larger consumer market complete with smartphones, but as a number of industries focus on M2M, WiMAX will have a leg up. --Lynnette

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