Jarich on WiMAX: What might have been

Peter Jarich Current AnalysisOn the heels of Samsung's 802.16m trials this week in Japan, someone wittier than I referred to the technology as a "sequel to the movie most people haven't watched." 

Wit aside, this brand of punditry irks me. Sure, we know that in the long-run WiMAX isn't going to rival LTE for mobile broadband supremacy. But, if you're an operator who has launched WiMAX networks, are you supposed to simply give up on the WiMAX evolution path whether or not it's powering revenue-generating services today? Even if you think LTE is where you want to go with your networks, sending out that message today could easily confuse your customers--or upset your national regulators. The same holds true for vendors: If you want to keep selling into WiMAX operators (or sell them TD-LTE going forward), you need an 802.16m story. Punting on "WiMAX 2.0" will simply telegraph your lack of faith in the 802.16 family. What kind of relationship will that build with your customers?

Sitting back and questioning the prospects for 802.16m is akin to calling somebody's baby ugly. It might be true. If done well, it might garner a laugh. Still, it's probably not telling anyone something they don't already know--and it's not particularly instructive.

Strangely enough, however, for all of the WiMAX vs. LTE panels, columns and analysis of the past few years, one question I've never seen asked is, "What could the industry have done to make WiMAX the success story many people were hoping for?" Assuming that it wasn't fated to take 2nd place to LTE, what went wrong, or what should have been done differently?

We've asked that question internally more than a few times.  The result: a list of "to do" items should we stumble upon a time machine.

  • Less WiMAX aggression. When WiMAX evolved from a technology driven by small fixed-wireless start-ups into a proto-4G contender driven by the likes of Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, Intel, Motorola, Samsung and ZTE, the messaging took on a new tone. LTE became the chief rival. WiMAX became the solution to an impending deluge in mobile data demand. Would-be WiMAX competitors were put on alert--so much so that mobile operator CEO's (you know the ones) publicly went on record with the need for a response to WiMAX. LTE R&D was prioritized. To be sure, skyrocketing smartphone usage would have driven LTE roadmaps anyway. But, without such aggressive messaging around the value of WiMAX (and OFDM and MIMO) in a mobile broadband world, the technology's commercial lead on LTE might have been stretched out by at least a year or two.
  • More spectrum bands.  A core value proposition of the WiMAX ecosystem has always been its focus on TDD spectrum such as the 2.3GHz, 2.5 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands. Sure, FDD bands could be supported; the WiMAX Forum even planned a 700 MHz FDD profile at one point. A focus on TDD bands, however, addressed the relatively untapped opportunity for standards-based TDD equipment backed by a diverse ecosystem of devices. Unfortunately, as much as WiMAX supporters argued that operators with TDD spectrum would shake up the market and give traditional mobile broadband operators a run for their money, they were largely incorrect--think the late 1990's hype around the revolutionary impact of CLECs in the U.S. Would support for popular FDD spectrum bands have ensured broader WiMAX success with the operators driving today's mobile broadband services? It's unclear. Could it have hurt the technology's prospects? No.
  • More specialization.  Our CEO tells a story about being asked how he would compete with the market's biggest IP networking firm if he were in charge of a smaller start-up. His response was to focus on a very narrow set of market demands or market segments; the manufacturing sector, for example. Where the bigger vendor was forced to be everything to everyone, he would attempt to nail market requirements in a very specific industry--and likely do a better job than his chief rival. WiMAX had the same opportunity. Had the standard developed to focus specifically on fixed applications, technical features and solution components would have developed to make competition from LTE more difficult. Beyond fixed broadband, the same could be said for vertical markets like utilities, public safety, or transportation. Could LTE serve the same markets? Of course. If the WiMAX industry had decisively pushed into them from several years back, would LTE be able to compete well with the ecosystem and momentum that WiMAX enjoyed? Less likely.

You could argue that musing about, "what might have been" is about as useful as making fun of 802.16m. Yet, where WiMAX is still very much alive and new technologies (new vendors) will continue to attempt to unseat incumbents, there are always lessons to be learned.

Peter Jarich is an analyst with Current Analysis.