Heavy Reading Research

WiMax Finds Short-Term Niche in 4G M2M

Rapidly falling chipset prices are making WiMax well suited for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, but expensive Long Term Evolution (LTE) modules may be the only safe bet for the long haul, says Heavy Reading Mobile research analyst Tim Kridel.

According to the latest Heavy Reading Mobile Networks Insider report, "M2M on the Rise: The Technology Perspective," WiMax is becoming a popular, albeit challenged, technology for advanced M2M communications. (See M2M: Where WiMax Meets Lindsay Lohan.)

Most M2M apps today run on 2G or 2.5G networks and may never have a need for 3G, let alone 4G speeds, but carriers are pushing the technology anyway. Kridel says it’s a matter of future-proofing. If carriers shut down their 2G networks, as they have in the past with analog and cellular digital packet data (CDPD) networks, any 2G app is left stranded. (See Does 4G Have a Role in M2M?)

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)’s message is we are moving to 4G, and if you want an application in the field for several years you need to think about 3G and maybe even 4G,” Kridel says.

For anyone making that move today, the only option is WiMax. ABI Research forecasts there will be more than 40,000 WiMax-based M2M cellular modules shipped in 2010, and Kridel says he was shocked to find out how quickly prices are falling.

Singlemode WiMax chipsets ran about $20 in volume as of the end of 2009 or $35 to $40 for the entire module; and some chipset vendors expect prices to drop to $12 to $14 by the end of 2010. That’s cheaper than 3G modules and significantly less than LTE. LTE modules with 3G fallback cost around $120 to $190.

Granted, as a brand new technology, LTE chips haven’t begun to ride down the cost curve, but Kridel expects they’ll still carry a hefty premium for the next year or two.

That being said, he doesn’t believe that WiMax’s advantage is sustainable.

M2M apps have to be built with the long-haul in mind. Unlike in cellphones, most modules stay in place for 10 years or more. In addition to coverage gaps, WiMax faces the same obsolescence issue that some 1X networks do. If carriers migrate from WiMax to LTE, an idea even Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) has entertained, enterprises that don’t own and operate their own WiMax networks would be left without one. (See Clearwire Coverage Tops 50 Million People.)

“If it’s only going to be in the market a few years, then WiMax is a safe bet, but 5 to 10 to 15 years, there’s a lot of ‘what ifs,’ ” Kridel says. “LTE is not going anywhere. There’s too much money, carrier reputation, and vendor commitments behind it.”

T-Mobile US Inc. is among the companies likely moving to LTE, but right now its upgraded 3G network High-Speed Packet Access Plus (HSPA+) is more than adequate for its customers, says its national director of M2M, John Horn. The carrier has deployed HSPA+ in 25 markets, and Horn says two companies are already testing modules on it for telematics solutions and “are loving what they’re seeing,” but he doesn’t know when actual deployments will happen.

HSPA+ modules will be in the $80 range when they come out (HSPA modules cost $85), according to Horn, but they won’t make sense for apps that don’t need to transmit loads of data. Over time, as prices drop, it will be a different story, he says.

“Two years ago, [2G modules] were $80 and now they’re under $20,” Horn says. “The same will happen with HSPA+ models.”

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

sarahthomas1011 12/5/2012 | 4:30:28 PM
re: WiMax Finds Short-Term Niche in 4G M2M

It's also worth mentioning that Tim said T-Mobile is making good on its promise to be "the easiest to do business with." The carriers always talk about how they are open to any business model and will be flexible, but I didn't really trust them on that. Sounds like, at least for M2M, they're realizing one size doesn't fit all.

sarahthomas1011 12/5/2012 | 4:30:28 PM
re: WiMax Finds Short-Term Niche in 4G M2M

Of course, private networks and WiFi are also options for M2M. I'm sure what technology to use really has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. The complexity supports the value of working with an MVNO that aggregates several networks together, but I wonder how expensive the modules they sell are.

FredStein 12/5/2012 | 4:30:24 PM
re: WiMax Finds Short-Term Niche in 4G M2M

There are many cost issues with M2M besides chip. Many M2M applications need to run on batteries, in which case the power consumption of the radio interface is key. Often M2M does not need a lot of bandwidth and with advanced power management can cycle up and down as needed. Also M2M applications require rate plans that match their bandwidth consumption, which is usually very small and predicable.

As the article mentioned, M2M usually has long in-service life. This is an opportunity and challenge for operators. A dependable 10 year revenue stream is nice. But they have to old technology in place for 10 years, meaning they miss out on about 5 Moore's Law cycles (in 10 years). That is 2 ** 5 = 32x improvement in price performance.

rameshrai 12/5/2012 | 4:29:59 PM
re: WiMax Finds Short-Term Niche in 4G M2M

Many other things are dependent on which technology to use. For example, the region where the technology will be deployed and the technology politics are among other factors. But I think Big companies will go for LTE as well as WiMAX with appropriate quantity according to the demand. Its smaller Companies who wants to have market share with low cost equipments from WiMAX technology.


Telecommunication Network

shygye75 12/5/2012 | 4:29:57 PM
re: WiMax Finds Short-Term Niche in 4G M2M

You're absolutely correct in pointing out that factors other than technology are in play in many markets. What is likely to result is not so much a choice between WiMAX or LTE, but a migration FROM WiMAX to LTE over time. Operators need to have their transition plan thought out in advance to have the best chance at success -- that includes selection of technology suppliers that can make the transition as cost-effective as possible.

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