A Dash of WiMax Reality

As with most emerging technologies, there's good news and bad where WiMax is concerned.

To wit, a plugfest in Beijing earlier this month heralded new levels of multi-vendor interoperability -- but it's still likely be at least another six months before certified products are available to buy.

Coinciding with the Global WiMax Summit, the plugfest was the second round of WiMAX Forum testing and the first where multiple vendors were able to demonstrate the interoperability of base stations and chipsets -- a significant milestone for the nascent industry, which has seen several products-to-market estimates pushed back over the last 18 months.

“It was a very positive first meeting,” says Rupert Baines, vice president of marketing at U.K.-based PicoChip Designs Ltd. and a Beijing attendee. “It was the first big multi-vendor plugfest, and, if anything, the surprise was how well things went.”

Companies participating in the demo included Airspan Networks Inc., Alvarion Ltd., Aperto Networks, Axxcelera Broadband Wireless, PicoChip Designs Ltd., Sequans Communications, and several other early-stage WiMax providers. The testing showed successful Layers 1 and 2 connectivity over a live network, according to the Forum's marketing director, Mohammad Shakouri.

That being said, it will likely be at least another six months before WiMAX Forum-certified products start hitting the market, according to analysts and service provider executives. Shakouri expects the Forum to begin certifying WiMax equipment in the 3.5Ghz spectrum by the end of this year, with actual products rolling out through 2006. And for enterprise users, at least in the U.S., it will be another year or two before wireless broadband services become available.

That’s because the 3.5GHz spectrum, likely to be the worldwide standard for fixed WiMax in its early iterations, is not available in the U.S. (See WiMax USA: Spectrum Crunch.) While there's talk of the FCC making some of that band accessible, there are no guarantees. Spectrum in 2.5 GHz is currently owned by several U.S. operators, but technology for that band is further down the road.

What that means is that over the next 12 months, the WiMax services that do come to market will be for developing countries and underserved markets in Europe.

“The version of fixed [WiMax] being shown in Beijing is really just a quick way to get communications infrastructure into undeveloped markets,” says Will Strauss, senior wireless analyst with Forward Concepts Co.. And he forecasts that this market segment will grow at 20 percent or more annually for the foreseeable future.

The other major ’06 market for 3.5GHz WiMax, says Shakouri, will be parts of Europe currently reached only by dialup. “In Europe you have the universal broadband rule, mandated by the EC, that says everyone in Europe must get broadband. There is quite a large percentage of households, perhaps 20 to 30 percent, that cannot get [wireline] broadband. So some of the operators will be using WiMax to serve those parts of the continent.”

In the U.S., some wireless ISPs will use WiMax to roll out broadband to underserved rural markets, much as operators like Clearwire LLC are using the technology's precursors today. (See McCaw Clears the Wires.) But the enterprise market will still be waiting for what many see as the end-goal: mobile WiMax.

Once high-bandwidth applications can reach laptops, cellphones, and other handheld devices, the applications for enterprise users will likely explode. Testing for mobile WiMax gear, however, probably won’t get underway for at least another year.

“The biggest opportunity [in the U.S.] is not fixed but mobile WiMax,” says Shakouri. “We’ll see equipment for that by the end of ’06, and actual certification by ‘07.” (See Mobile WiMax Coming Soon?)

“Today true broadband is based almost entirely on wire, but what happens when that level of performance becomes entirely mobile?” asks wireless analyst Craig Mathias, of the Farpoint Group. That's when users will begin to shift toward mobile voice, data, and eventually video. "We’re definitely moving into the era where the last few meters will be wireless for everything we do.”

Where does that leave the U.S. market for fixed WiMax, which some forecasters have seen turning entire cities into high-speed wireless hotspots?

“If you knew the answer to that question, you’d make an awful lot of money,” chuckles PicoChip's Baines. “There’s a lot of ambiguity and argument. Within the Forum there’s this whole debate about fixed vs. mobile: Are they different standards, different technologies? It’s a live discussion.”

As for the still-distant deployment of mobile WiMax, it will likely bring a new level of difficult decisions to enterprise users searching for high-speed mobile solutions.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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