Industry Voices—Schoolar: 5G raising some of the ghosts of WiMAX

WiMAX has some intriguing parallels with the coming era of 5G
Daryl Schoolar Ovum

The recent on-again-off-again courtship of Sprint, along with a conversation with another industry analyst, got me thinking about the mobile operator’s 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings and how some of what we are hearing now echoes what we heard originally about WiMAX.

First let’s start with Sprint. It has over 100MHz of TDD spectrum in the 2.5 GHz. Since 2000 this band has had several owners. And during that time, the band has been host to MMDS, WiMAX and now LTE.

During the WiMAX versus LTE 4G days, then-Sprint CTO Barry West used to compare his 2.5 GHz to competitors’ 700 MHz. The 700 MHz spectrum was seen as beachfront property, but he said when the data tide comes in you better off on higher ground. That higher ground is 2.5 GHz.

That analogy appears to be starting to work out for Mr. West, just 10 years later than he forecasted. The speed gains promised by 5G are predominately based on using larger spectrum channels and massive MIMO, both of which favor 2.5 GHz over lower FDD bands like 600 and 700 MHz.

Furthermore, 2.5 GHz is more suitable for coverage and mobility than mmWave bands other operators are trialing. Outside of the United States, operators are looking at the nearly adjacent 3.5 GHz band as their initial 5G band. 5G is built for high tide. But the similarities don’t end there.

5G: As much about fixed as mobile

5G has been just as much about fixed as it is about mobile. Sure, there are fixed wireless access networks based on LTE, but that has never been the big push for the LTE ecosystem. Fixed certainly hasn’t been as important to LTE as it was for WiMAX. And let us not forget the new business model angle.

Both WiMAX and 5G came with talk about new business models. For WiMAX, it was about getting into a broader range of consumer devices like computers, cameras and music players. Of course, smartphones pretty much killed that idea. WiMAX proponents also wanted to change the service model, move away from carrier contracts and use new payment schemes.

5G also promises to change the mobile operator business model. This time, however, it is more enterprise focused. IoT, critical communications, manufacturing robots—all areas that promise new service opportunities for mobile operators who have pretty much maximized the smartphone market. Autonomous vehicles give mobile operators another new market as well.

The need for new business partners

On the other hand, one of the big differences between WiMAX and 5G is the unified support for 5G. WiMAX had to compete against LTE and the weight of the 3GPP community. 5G does not have this problem. The problem 5G might have is ambition. 

The new business models 5G is being built for are often outside of operators’ reach and will require partners. These business models will also face regulatory and industry hurdles that operators are not used to either. This risks 5G being like other new telecom technologies. They start off promising all sorts of new revenue opportunities, only to change their tune and focus on cost savings as the hurdles of new services prove too high.

In the end, WiMAX didn’t compete with LTE in the area of mobile broadband or create new classes of connected devices. Instead, it settled on fixed wireless access in mainly remote areas and some very specific industrial applications mainly around aeronautics. I think this is what is driving some of the current talk that 5G will be a failure and 6G will be needed to fix all its mistakes.

Daryl Schoolar is principal analyst of wireless infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.