Wimax's future

06 Dec 2007

The World Radiocommunication Conference is a dry affair - a month-long confab of telecom officials and engineers about spectrum.

But spectrum is the wireless industry's real estate, so it matters a lot. The one decision that generated any headlines was the one that granted IMT2000 status to the 802.16 Wimax standard.

That doesn't guarantee anything, but gives the Intel-backed standard a shot at becoming one of the next-gen mobile standards. In theory at least it means 2.3- to 2.4-GHz spectrum worldwide is set aside for mobile Wimax.

But it's also allocated to China's baby, TD-SCDMA, and for that reason the WRC vote has infuriated the Chinese. The mainland press is now full of lurid conspiracy theories directed at the US government, complaining that this 'negates the theory of technology neutrality' (unlike, say, WAPI).

But while the Chinese fulminate, many of us who've followed the fortunes of Wimax over the past five years are more than a little surprised. The consistent message from Wimax's backers has been that the technology is all about DSL substitution, greenfields broadband, emerging markets, backhaul, mobile data - pretty much any telecom segment you can name apart from mobile voice.

When asked, Intel Wimax honcho Sean Maloney would invariably give the impression he was surprised anyone bothered to even mention the minor theoretical possibility of mobile services.
Maloney is no longer on the Wimax case. Perhaps it was his successor who noticed the mobile potential of 802.16 and quickly notified the ITU which, no doubt marveling at this latest example of American know-how, were pleased to add it to the 3G family.

Spectacular success

Or - and maybe this is a stretch - just maybe, Intel and the Wimax Forum decided long ago that the mobile Wimax debate was an impossible one to win. On the one hand, it didn't work very well. On the other, it scared the living daylights out of both operators and vendors.

Wimax's technical flaw has been the lack of soft handoff between cells - but that's a problem that will be solved.

Its bigger vulnerability was as a disruptive new kid on the block. Its softly, softly diplomatic approach has been intended not to scare off operators that have invested in 3G and to win over vendors.

It seems to have done that with spectacular success. Every major vendor but Ericsson and Qualcomm has joined the Wimax bandwagon while a lot of incumbent operators in fact welcome it as a challenger to the status quo.

Indeed, Wimax has run a textbook case on how to create an industry standard. The Wimax Forum and its backers have intensively worked the stakeholders to great effect over the past half a dozen years.

ABI Research forecasts almost 200 million Wimax mobile subs worldwide by 2012. That seems generous, but if Sprint can demonstrate a successful business model doubtless many others will follow.

When it comes to 4G, most analysts see it as a showdown between Wimax and LTE, but in developing markets in particular we will see TD-SCDMA come into the picture.

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