Mobile WiMax: Back to Basics

If there's one safe assumption about mobile WiMax, it's that the technology won't languish as a niche play. Why? It's not simply because a few hundred vendors and service providers have a good deal of money and reputation riding on this technology. It's also because, even if mobile WiMax doesn't live up to all of its backers' lofty ambitions, it is clearly shaping up to be a viable choice for mobile broadband.

To help CIOs and IT managers sort through their options, this edition of Unstrung Enterprise Insider, entitled Mobile WiMax: Who's Doing What, looks at vendor plans, when the technology will be commercially available, and what enterprises can expect in terms of throughput, coverage, roaming, and device selection. This is important because, although the first WiMAX Forum-certified user devices are likely to debut sometime in the second half of 2007, it will take at least another year before the technology starts to become a viable option for most enterprises.

"It's really science-experiment time," says Kevin Suitor, vice president of business development and marketing at Redline Communications Inc. , a mobile WiMax vendor. "For the most part, it's going to be about getting the formula right in 2008. If I were an enterprise, I'd be planning on deployment in 2009-2010."

Why? One reason is mobility: Because users will be moving around, fundamental issues such as roaming, handoffs, and coverage become critical for service providers and their customers. Based on discussions with nearly a dozen vendors and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), Unstrung Enterprise Insider believes that domestic and international roaming will happen later rather than sooner.

Achieving just basic roaming means lining up multiple business relationships and the necessary devices, such as multiband PC card modems – which is no small task, when one considers how much vendors and service providers have on their plates learning and deploying a new technology. Add in roaming between mobile WiMax and 3G, which is a goal of operators such as Sprint, and the engineering challenges become even more difficult.

Nevertheless, roaming support will be important to enterprises, especially during mobile WiMax's first years, when coverage will be spotty. As a result, some device vendors and service providers are likely to try to position roaming support as a market differentiator. Those with cellular experience should have a competitive edge because that industry has spent decades getting roaming down to a science. Although the technologies are significantly different, the hands-on experience deploying cellular technology will be enormously valuable when creating technical and business frameworks for mobile WiMax roaming.

Basics such as roaming and coverage might not grab the attention of press and customers the way that data rates and broadband apps do, but they're important. As mobile WiMax inches closer to commercial reality, how vendors and service providers address those fundamentals will go a long way toward separating the winners from the losers.

— Tim Kridel, Analyst, Unstrung Enterprise Insider

This report, Mobile WiMax: Who’s Doing What, is available as part of an annual subscription (6 bimonthly issues) to Unstrung Enterprise Insider, priced at $1,295. Individual reports are available for $900. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/enterprise.

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