The best of both worlds

15 Oct 2006

Events are suddenly falling the right way for WiMAX. The wireless broadband standard has been developing in slow increments since its launch three years ago. Until now, its backers have focused on four areas. First, on lobbying policy-makers to secure spectrum and drive license allocation. Second, ensuring standardization and certification of fixed-line WiMAX and, soon, mobile WiMAX gear.

Third is the trials. WiMAX has been adopted for 190 trials, of which 40 have gone to commercial stage. Of these 25 are in emerging markets.

Fourth, Intel, WiMAX's biggest backer, has also invested directly into WiMAX operators to kickstart the business: Unwired in Australia and Clearwire in the US and Europe.

Now the announcements of massive deployments by Clearwire and Sprint suggest this groundwork is paying off.

Clearwire will use WiMAX to deliver fixed broadband in secondary markets across the US. Sprint will augment its EV-DO network with mobile WiMAX to cover more than 100 million consumers. Both carriers expect to deploy in 2008. But it is Sprint that is boldly going where no operator has been before. And the key to the success just has to be the device.

The first consumer products will be WiMAX PC cards, with initial shipments due by the end of the year. Sprint is betting big that usage of the WiMAX service will go way beyond road warriors filing sales reports.

Along with its device suppliers Motorola and Samsung, it is hoping to open up a whole new segment of youth users downloading music and swapping video files on the move. That calls for something well beyond what today's 3G mobile phone can do. Samsung and Motorola haven't released any details on their WiMAX product range.

Cut-down device
One pointer to the future is Intel's Ultra Mobile Computer - a tablet device that is a bit bigger than a PDA but with the functionality of a PC and comes with Wi-Fi connectivity. The first terminal will be one-quarter the size of a laptop and consume half the power.

There's no doubt the concept of a cut-down device with media player and Wi-Fi connectivity has got legs. The question is can the service be delivered at the right price point‾

If the claims from the WiMAX camp are to believed, the cost of deployment is precisely the strength. In a widely-repeated remark, Sprint CEO Gary Forsee has said he believes WiMAX can deliver equivalent service to 3G at one-tenth of the cost.

This is because WiMAX comes without the expensive 3G spectrum fees and uses the more spectrally-efficient OFDM wireless propagation technology.

Beyond the business case, events are moving in other ways that could boost WiMAX.

The two key swing markets of India and China have yet to declare how they will deal with 3G. The reality of 3G is it is really a more efficient voice service. The strength of WiMAX is it can be both fixed and mobile, with a long propagation range that makes it ideal for unconnected rural areas.

3G-WiMAX would ensure high-speed data in both rural and urban areas. It would reduce the cost of the 3G-3.5G network rollout, while delivering high-speed data to the user at a much lower cost.

The business model would be the Sprint rollout, which anticipates users would use Wi-Fi in the office, WiMAX around the city and the 3G network when roaming.

A joint 3G-WiMAX option might be just the way to break the policy impasse and cut the cost of mobile broadband.

It also recognizes that both WiMAX and HSDPA are rivals only to a limited extent. Each has different and largely complementary capabilities. A joint approach to developing markets might be the winning move for both standards.

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