At WiMAX World, a Technology in Search of Its Niche

WiMAX has always been something of an oddball technology in the mobile data world.

While most mobile broadband standards are based on such cellular technologies as Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and GSM, WiMAX stands out as a data-only standard that is being billed as a wireless alternative to cable and DSL. At this week's WiMAX World conference in Chicago, many speakers pointedly downplayed any competition between WiMAX and its cellular rivals in the mobile data market. Rather, they said WiMAX could act as a complement to such current 3G cellular data standards as Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) and High Speed Packet Access (HSPA).

"WiMAX has no interest in replacing cellular voice networks," said WiMAX Forum president Ron Resnick during his opening keynote. "WiMAX's network will coexist with mob voice networks to deliver next-generation networks that will complement what they're doing today."

Ben Wolff, CEO of Sprint Nextel's WiMAX partner Clearwire, echoed that theme and said that "people are getting lost in debate over which technology is best," when they really should be talking about developing a business plan "that allows us to deliver all the Internet has to offer in the palm of your hand, and about having a new type of network architecture that is all IP-based."

So, if WiMAX devices and services won't be going head-to-head with carriers' cell-based data standards, it's fair to ask exactly what WiMAX brings to the table. The answer in the short term appears to be that it's the fastest wireless-data standard available until the GSM-based Long Term Evolution (LTE) arrives two or more years from now. In the long term, WiMAX could be a major player in bringing broadband to rural and developing areas.

Let's start with WiMAX's short-term potential. During his opening address, Resnick noted it would be at least two years before LTE or any similar mobile data standard is commercially available, and that this time-to-market advantage is "ours to lose." On the WiMAX World showroom floor, several device vendors gave attendees an idea of just what high-speed mobile-broadband services will look like. One of the most striking examples came from Nokia Siemens Networks, which mounted a Nokia N810 WiMAX-based Internet appliance near the dashboard of a car. Because WiMAX networks can cover several miles of ground, users could drive around an entire city and have uninterrupted high-speed Web connectivity throughout their trip.

Other new devices on display included a WiMAX femtocell developed by Australia's Juni that converts cellular signals into WiMAX IP traffic; a mobile WiMAX express card from Samsung that can plug into a PC and connect to Sprint Xohm's WiMAX services; and assorted smart phones, ultramobile PCs, base stations and antennae. 

So far, the WiMAX Forum has registered 480 devices to more than 80 vendors, and the wide diversity of devices and applications shows that vendors and carriers are enthusiastic about innovating to take advantage of WiMAX connectivity, Resnick said.

While a lot of the buzz at WiMAX World revolved around the technology's potential to deliver wireless broadband to the mass consumer and enterprise markets in the United States, many speakers said its biggest long-term opportunity will be its potential to connect rural and developing areas to the Web at high speeds. 

In particular, Resnick touted India as a major market opportunity for WiMAX vendors because of that country's high demand and low supply of broadband connections. "In a country with over one billion people, there are only 4 million subscribers for broadband services," he said. "What's clear is that Indian citizens want to be connected but the infrastructure isn't there."

BSNL, a state-run carrier that is India's largest telecom provider, has taken the lead in making WiMAX connectivity a priority in both urban and rural areas, Resnick said. So far, the carrier has deployed WiMAX across 10 cities in India and aims to cover 16,000 to 18,000 rural villages in India by the end of 2009, he said. Indian telco Tata Communications, meanwhile, is rolling out a US$1 billion WiMAX network that will use 3,000 base-station sectors to provide full coverage for enterprises in 15 major cities.

SOMA Networks was hired by BSNL to help deploy its WiMAX network, to choose and secure WiMAX equipment, and to help it run its operation, said Jonathan Jaeger, director of business development for the rural-broadband network company. The good thing about working with carriers in India is that they not only have a large network of towers and base-station locations connected by fiber optics already in place, but also have access to the 2.5GHz spectrum that can carry WiMAX signals, he said.

This makes it markedly easier to deploy WiMAX services throughout India than throughout the rural United States, where carriers often have been reluctant to build broadband infrastructure, Jaeger said. Instead of working with major carriers in the United States to deploy WiMAX networks in rural areas, SOMA has had to rely on small local carriers, such as the Montana-based Ronan Telephone Co., to help get rural WiMAX networks up and running.

The reason that WiMAX is so attractive to rural telecom providers is that it provides a low-cost alternative to traditional wireline services, such as DSL and cable, Jaeger said. Thus, instead of deploying miles of cable over large swathes of land to serve a relatively small customer base, WiMAX can deliver broadband services over a large radius using one central base station.

"WiMAX really is most the cutting-edge [radio frequency] broadband technology," Jaeger said. "It is IP-based at the core and it's available today. While LTE uses for the most part the same technologies, its standards aren't finished yet. No other technology available right now does what WiMAX can do," he said.

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