FEATURE: A Little Truth

A Little Truth

By Andrew Seybold 

Welcome to my first column for FierceWireless! I am looking forward to this new association and sharing my ideas with a new audience. By way of introduction, I am a wireless industry analyst, consultant and educator, and I am known for writing articles that make people think. Sometimes I upset my readers, sometimes I have them nodding their heads in agreement and other times I cause them to shake their heads in disbelief! I will be writing about a different topic each month, starting with the 3GSM conference that just concluded in Barcelona, Spain. This month I'm focusing on WiMAX and its potential impact on the wireless industry.

Most 3GSM attendees make their living in the traditional wireless space and view WiMAX as a potential threat. While some welcome it as yet another wireless technology to be added to their stable of offerings, others dismiss it as a pipe dream.

When asked by a member of the press for my opinion of WiMAX and its inclusion in the 3GSM show, my comment was that, "There is nothing wrong with WiMAX that a little truth won't cure." Hype and inflated expectations surrounding any new technology will come back to haunt those who engage in it. And the WiMAX hype has been building as it comes closer to reality. One booth at the show was billed as "WiMAX is here." Intel, the godfather of WiMAX, Samsung, Nokia and Motorola were well represented. Sprint, the first commercial network operator to announce that it will launch WiMAX in its 2.5 GHz spectrum  (in addition to its CDMA network) insisted on calling WiMAX "4G," even though Intel has dropped this claim.

Missing were the hundreds of companies that are truly responsible for the development of WiMAX. These smaller companies, funded by the VC community, worked long and hard to make WiMAX a reality and expected to make money in the marketplace, but it appears they have been usurped by the usual suspects. Demonstrations in the WiMAX booth included streaming video, Internet access and VoIP applications, and many people were proudly showing the technology. Intel was passing out its brochure entitled, "Mobile WiMAX Delivers the Mobile Internet," with a quote on the inside front cover from Barry West, President of the 4G Mobile Broadband Business Unit for Sprint: "Mobile WiMAX has major infrastructure and chip makers behind it, delivers four times the throughput of other wireless technologies at up to 10 times cost and performance improvements, and is better suited for its 100 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum than competing technologies."

Let's see now. With four times the throughput of either UMTS/HSDPA or EV-DO Rev. A, it will be a wonderful world when WiMAX is finally deployed into commercial service. However, there is something wrong with this picture. Spectrum is a finite resource and you can prove anything when the numbers are skewed to favor a particular technology. What happens if we look at bits/Hz and take measurements in, say, 10 MHz of spectrum? This analysis results in two UMTS/HSDPA carriers, seven EV-DO Rev. A channels and one WiMAX channel. Wow! Under these equalized conditions, we find that WiMAX is not as spectrally efficient as either of the incumbents. The spectral "efficiency" claims on behalf of WiMAX are based simply on the fact that it has more spectrum to use (waste?).

Don't get me wrong, WiMAX has a place and it will find its niche. While well intentioned, the warning from Vodafone President and CEO Arun Sarin: "Operators need to pull together more efficiently to avoid the threat poised by WiMAX," is an over-reaction as is the statement that the GSM community needs to set the LTE (Long Term Evolution) standard sooner rather than later. All of the claims for WiMAX have yet to be demonstrated in full-scale commercial deployments. The true test is not one or even ten WiMAX sites running in a test bed, it will be in covering an entire city or nation handling the demands placed on the system by real, paying customers. Only then will we really know what WiMAX is capable of, what it costs to deploy the technology, and if it truly is a threat to the existing wireless ecosystem.

Until then, all we have to go on are statements from companies that want to make money selling WiMAX systems. We haven't heard from operators that will have to decide whether to implement WiMAX and offer services over it. I am fine with waiting to see what WiMAX can do in the real world. In the meantime, could we have a little less hype and inflated expectations, please!

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.