CDMA vs WiMax
Here's a little history lesson: By 1995-1996, in the year before and the year of CDMA launch (Hong Kong in October 1995, Korea in early 1996, then Sprint PCS, and PCS PrimeCo in fall '96), all the dirty laundry around standards issues, interop issues, RF issues, hardware issues, political/IP issues, etc., were being very vocally aired in public and in the press. Conferences were awash in PowerPoint presentations on what didn’t work -- which is a good thing, because when engineers start publicly talking about what doesn’t work, and share that information, it usually means that people will be fixing things.
Contrast this with WiMax today: To be in mid-2008 and have the world’s leading proponent of WiMax talk about it working "in my house" should scare the crap out of any WiMax proponent. Gee, just what would be the career longevity of the field engineering team if Xohm did not work in Barry’s house? And service plans not likely to be "north of $60"? Whatever happened to four -- or even ten! -- times the performance at one-tenth of the cost? (See Clearwire: In Depth With Barry West.)
When talking about the overall challenges of WiMax, folks often overlook the amazing advantages Sprint saw when they first made the WiMax decision -- they got spectrum cheap and allegedly got huge equipment subsidies from their vendor base. Given those dynamics, where does that leave any intrepid greenfield operator looking to launch mobile WiMax in developing parts of the world -- having to buy spectrum, deploy huge amounts of capital/infrastructure, fund immense opex, and start with Subscriber No. 1 up against fully deployed HSDPA or EV-DO networks and a massive, fully developed device ecosystem? (See WiMax: The Cost Is Clear and Sprint Goes WiMax.)
Mobile WiMax will work, it will take time after real launches to mature, and will most likely be less spectrally efficient or at best spectrally equivalent -- megahertz to megahertz -- with HSPA evolutions as well as LTE. Hate to say it, but there’s no more "free lunch" in radio performance anymore. Owning lots of spectrum is a good thing, will always be a good thing, regardless of what radio you throw in there. I’m going to write a piece -- probably three or four pieces down the road -- on what I call “just another radio."
Here we are in mid-2008, and there just ain’t much "there" there in the WiMax world. I can -- and will, if you want -- dissect a bunch more of the lame and spurious claims/arguments of the Sprint/Clearwire guys, but they have a long way to go before they can be the next CDMA.
Korea launched nationally in 1995, albeit with a lot of growing pains, and PCS PrimeCo launched in 16 cities in the autumn of 1996. Sprint PCS also did real launches in 1996. Given Barry’s comment that the “standard was baked in 2005,” mobile WiMax is right on track for real launches in 2008 and 2009 -- when, in 2005, I suggested that real mobile WiMax might be 2007/2008 I got pilloried! -- but my guess is 2008 will be a stretch unless we start seeing WiMax’s dirty laundry thoroughly aired.
That being said, the other frame of reference of Dan’s discussion was: Will WiMax end up in a market share position analogous to the cdmaOne, CDMA2000, and EV-DO world? That’s rather a stretch, because for the WiMax guys to ever get to CDMA2000 market share levels there will need to be a massive degree of "reality execution" that has been sorely lacking in the last few years. WiMax will launch and get real, it will gain share, but will it ever reach the 25 to 30 percent global market share of CDMA at its peak?
That’s going to be a tough mountain to climb, especially as the existing ecosystems coalesce around their current network paths and future migrations to LTE. Oh yes, and all this discussion is on 802.16e… When exactly is equipment for 802.16m going to ready for operators and consumers? (See Wireless Camps Prep Fresh 4G Battle.)
— Jeff Belk is a principal at ICT168 Capital LLC, focused on developing and guiding global growth opportunities in the Information and Communication Technology space. Special to Unstrung
Full disclosure: Belk was formerly senior vice president of strategy and market development for Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM). He is no longer in the pay of Qualcomm but continues to own stock.