Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Last throw of the dice for WiMAX

Like it or not, this is the year that will prove whether there is a business case for mobile WiMAX. If it doesn’t take off in a substantial way in 2008, I think you can safely proclaim it another broadband wireless niche platform that has come and gone, similar to the likes of LMDS, MMDS and some of the proprietary stuff that came before it. It will live on for providing fixed “DSL-equivalent” broadband in remote areas and emerging markets, but it will have missed its chance of becoming a ubiquitous broadband technology for the roaming masses.

If it hasn’t solidified its base by the end of the year, then it will be because carriers have chosen to stick with HSPA and wait for LTE, which will by then be just around the corner. And that will mean that WiMAX has been pushed down to become yet another footnote in wireless broadband history at the expense of the GSM juggernaut. (And the same goes for the other proposed 4G standard, Qualcomm’s UBM, by the way.)

Of course, it could be that WiMAX really does prove itself in 2008 and there are already some encouraging signs. In Japan late last year the government awarded two licences in the 2.5GHz band to consortia headed by KDDI and another to Willcom, with equipment vendors already lining up to provide gear. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that in the case of KDDI, trials are only expected to kick off in February 2009.

Similarly, 2009 is expected to be the year that another potential WiMAX market, Taiwan, really gets underway. Taiwan also sees itself as a major supplier of WiMAX equipment to the world, and it is interesting that there are already grumblings over there about the cost of WiMAX compliance testing. According to Digitimes sources, it will cost about US$25,000-31,250 for the makers to complete the certification testing of a single fixed WiMAX item. In addition, the WiMAX Forum is charging US$10,000 per mobile WiMAX product to use the WiMAX Forum certified mark compared to US$5,500 per fixed WiMAX model. The news report also noted that a fee of up to US$200,000 is being estimated for the testing of some items.

The WiMAX camp also got a generally favourable report from Juniper Research last week suggesting that the mobile WiMAX 802.16e market will grow to $23 billion by 2013, with half of that total coming from Asia. However, that will still only represent “a single digit proportion of the Asian mobile broadband base by 2013,” according to the report.

The Juniper report also warns that both the availability of suitable devices and the awarding of licences will be important factors in determining the success of Mobile WiMAX 802.16e, both in Asia and globally. Interestingly, it also tips licences in India and Thailand as being crucial to the WiMAX camp. Warning bells should ring right there, given the two countries’ notoriously slow licensing regimes. In the case of Thailand, you can almost guarantee that it won’t be issuing licences for WiMAX this year, given the political environment and the need to create a new regulatory body.

When it comes to devices, one of the WiMAX camp’s trump cards is the backing of Intel, which will see it become standard in every new notebook computer, much the same as Wi-Fi is today. The only problem with this is that if there is no network to connect to, it doesn’t really matter if the notebook is WiMAX-enabled or not.

In contrast, if the push to include HSPA in new devices takes off, the HUGE advantage they have is that the networks and service are widespread already. And the momentum to include HSPA chips in notebooks is likely to happen this year. Throw in all the HSPA-capable mobile phones, and the economies of scale certainly don’t favour WiMAX and won’t any time soon.

Despite some vendor claims to the contrary, WiMAX needs the Sprint rollout in the US to succeed, and it will need to succeed wildly in 2008 if it is to give any vote of confidence to carriers in the rest of the world wanting to roll it out. If it doesn’t, then the GSM/HSPA/LTE camp will have won the battle for mobile wireless broadband supremacy for the foreseeable future. – Geoff Long

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