Big step toward acceptability

06 Sep 2006

August in Asia is the month of exams and results. Sweat, blood and a lot of tears as millions of 18-year-olds try to get through examination hell.

Just one result is going to define the rest of their lives.

Funnily enough, the same could be said about WiMAX.

A month ago a question mark hung over the whole WiMAX project, and in particular the mobile version. Sure, it had prospects. But being an awkward pubescent somewhere between standardization and commercialization, it had little to show but potential.

Meanwhile, the HSDPA buzz was growing louder and the questions asked of mobile WiMAX more critical: about voice, about hand-off, about acceptability.

Not any longer, thanks to Sprint Nextel. Its $2.5 billion-$3 billion plunge into nationwide mobile WiMAX will be the first major rollout by a tier-one carrier.

To refresh your memory, mobile WiMAX is the untested younger sibling of the WiMAX family. Fixed access WiMAX, aka 802.16-2004, is being widely deployed because it can meet the demand for quick, cost-effective connectivity, be it rural or broadband wireless, DSL in-fill, or even backhaul.

It's a pretty simple business model, but it doesn't have any marquee operators rolling it out on a grand scale. As much of it is straight DSL in rural areas in second-tier markets, it's hardly shaking the industry.

WiMAX 801.16-2005, or mobile WiMAX, is a newer and less mature technology. That's why for Garth Collier, Intel's managing director Asia for WiMAX, the Sprint contract was a 'watershed moment.'

Well and good. But now it's got to deliver. Sprint's rollout plan targets the end of 2007 for trials, with commercial deployment in '08. It promises a network that will reach 100 million people by 2008, with bandwidth speeds of 2-4 Mbps, and has lined up Intel, Samsung and Motorola to supply the system and the devices.

It's the business model for mobile WiMAX that has everyone curious. It is notionally a technology of such utility that multiple business models beckon - theoretically at least. Most operators would be happy with just one that works.

Sprint has provocatively dubbed the technology 4G, but it will function quite differently from Sprint's existing 3G EV-DO platform. For one, Sprint will not only continue to run its EV-DO nationwide, but it has just announced an upgrade to Rev A (3 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps up).
Yet for all the public emphasis on 3G bandwidth, it remains a voice service that does a bit of data. WiMAX is a data service that will carry a bit of voice.

It's much more an overlay or supplementary network, aimed at supplying the high-speed data needs of what Sprint execs have taken to calling the YouTube generation: music, video, social networking, file-sharing and games on the run.

CEO Gary Forsee says the WiMAX deployment will be four times faster than 3G, while the chips cost one-tenth the CDMA silicon. For all that, it's hard not to think of EV-DO as also an insurance policy for Sprint, in case WiMAX devices don't appear or it just doesn't take in the market.

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