Wimax struggles for its place in a post-3G world - again

John Tanner and Chris Everett
09 Nov 2007

The post-3G wars are well under way. The telecoms industry has set its sights on mobile broadband, which will be a $400 billion global market by 2012, according to Informa Telecoms & Media. And proprietary or market-specific technologies aside - or unless TDD suddenly becomes sexy outside of China - it's essentially a three-horse race between GSM, CDMA and Wimax.

Which horses are competing, exactly, is a matter of conjecture. On the GSM side, it's HSPA and the upcoming LTE (Long Term Evolution) due for commercial deployment in 2010. From the CDMA camp it's 1x EV-DO Rev B and its successor UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband) slated in 2009. And for Wimax there's 802.16e and, also around 2009, 802.16m.

The sales pitch for each camp can essentially be boiled down to the promise of 'true' mobile broadband connectivity - multi-megabit wireless data speeds anywhere you like without being tied down to coffee shops and airport lounges, and all of it employing the same base technologies of OFDM and MIMO. Yet each camp claims major advantages over the other - i the case of the GSM and CDMA camps, it's the usual economies of scale and interoperability vs technological genius and spectral efficiency, respectively.

Where Wimax stands in all this depends in part on which cellular evolutionary element you're comparing it to. For example, Wimax proponents maintain that mobile Wimax, which is coming out now and will roll out in earnest starting next year, is beating UMB to the punch by at least a year and LTE by at least two or three years.

'If there's not a good fixed-line infrastructure, if you have to move today, the best technology is Wimax, because it performs better than 3G currently does now,' says Anthony Berkeley, director of LTE marketing and strategy for Alcatel-Lucent's wireless business group.

On the other hand, the GSM Association states firmly that mobile broadband isn't future-tech - it's here now with HSPA rollouts. In Asia alone, according to the GSMA's Wireless Intelligence analyst venture with Ovum, W-CDMA connections in Asia will hit 160 million in 2010, 50% of which will be HSPA. The GSMA also says that the current HSPA peak speed of 7.2 Mbps is more than enough for most mobile apps - even data-intensive activities like downloading PowerPoints, video clips and music files.

That said, CDMA vendors like Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, Motorola, Nortel Networks and ZTE are pitching UMB as 'true mobile broadband', with peak speeds of close to 290 Mbps.

'That's enough bandwidth to do high-definition video over mobile,' says Kimberly Flowers, director of CDMA data product management at Motorola. 'HSDPA and EV-DO Rev A can't do that.'

Either way, the push from the cellular sector to promote their post-3G strategies has re-ignited the questions over the role of Wimax in mobile broadband - or if it will even have one.

'By 2010 we see a potential base of 800 million users for mobile broadband - either LTE or UMB,' says CW Cheung, APAC consulting director at Ovum. 'By 2011 Wimax will account for only 2% of the mobile broadband market.'

To be sure, the spectacle of cellular champions writing off Wimax as an also-ran is nothing new. Meanwhile, Wimax has been making serious headway as a fixed-line substitute in developing markets and generating headlines with big-name cellcos like Sprint rolling out mobile Wimax services in the US and Vodafone trialing it.

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