WiMax: What's Working Now

There is now lots of WiMax activity, both trials and early rollouts (for examples, see Table 1), and the transition to commercial services is now underway, but mainly in what might be called first-phase applications – developing economies, areas with little fixed infrastructure, economic hotspots, and so on. These are applications that play directly to WiMax’s obvious strengths and for which there few technical alternatives. In contrast, in the developed economies, the main interest (with the notable exception of Clearwire in the U.S.) seems currently to be smaller operators and service providers for niche competition with the wireline Tier 1s, or in areas where the Tier 1s have little interest.

Mostly omitted from Table 1, but relevant, are some Tier 1 operators that are interested in the technology’s potential for various special purposes: for example, KDDI Corp. in Japan, KPN Mobile in the Netherlands, and possibly BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) in the U.K. (very much a special case as BT does not have its own mobile network, so WiMax could be a way for BT to get back in to that market – probably for business customers).

WiMax grows up
The basic message is that significant numbers of service providers and operators are starting to roll out real networks for fixed/nomadic WiMax services, and that mobile WiMax products (the next technology phase) are appearing. So, in general, WiMax is beginning to happen, and some vendors think that 2008 is going to mark the transition to a more mainstream status for the technology.

Also, the first steps have been taken to establish the commercial environment for mobile WiMax, with the signing in March 2007 of the world’s first mobile WiMax roaming agreement by members of the WiMax Spectrum Owners Alliance (WiSOA) . (See WiSOA Wants WiMax Roaming.) “The agreement and partnership is the crucial first step in what will provide for seamless ‘GSM-like’ roaming amongst WiMax networks, and roaming partnerships with global WiFi and 3G networks – expediting the rollout of interoperable WiMax services worldwide,” said the WiSOA.

So the industry cheerleader, the WiMax Forum, bullishly predicts more than 133 million WiMax users globally by 2012, with approximately 70 percent using mobile and portable WiMax devices to access broadband Internet services. More concretely, the Forum announced the first ten MIMO 2.5GHz Mobile WiMax Certified products in June 2008, and said that it expected 3.5GHz certified products by the end of the year.

A very obvious trend is that hotspots of WiMax deployment are appearing, particularly in India, Africa, Russia, and parts of South America, the Middle East, and Asia/Pacific. The basic point here, of course, is the pressing need to deploy broadband communications in large regions that are chronically underserved by telecom, traditional or otherwise. But interest in WiMax’s potential to aid economic development and improve general social welfare is alive also in developed and well-served markets.

The Dutch government, for example, subsidizes trials of WiMax as part of its Smart Homes project to increase social welfare though telecom, while in June 2007 the Australian Government’s Department of Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy launched its “Australia Connected – Fast affordable broadband for all Australians” initiative. Essentially, the government is backing a private consortium of Optus and Elders (OPTEL) to build, by mid-2009, a national open wholesale network for broadband services, based on a mix of DSL and WiMax access (with fiber backhaul). The aim is to cover 99 percent of the population, with speeds up to 12 Mbit/s. This is part of a larger program aimed at both making broadband available to rural and regional parts of Australia, and helping people make the best use of broadband.

And on an even grander scale, the Taiwanese government has the M-Taiwan project, which will ultimately partly rest on the availability of urban mobile WiMax. This is a major government initiative, partly aimed at creating an entire WiMax ecosystem (from silicon chips to applications), as the government has identified WiMax as one of the next big things after WiFi for the Taiwanese ICT industry.

In a similar social vein, WiMax, like WiFi before it, seems to have an inherent tendency towards appealing to self-help and local initiatives in smaller communities, with various operators taking a proactive approach to getting local people involved with the broadband Internet. Roughly, wireless enables services to be distributed about a community in a way that wireline doesn’t – possibly an interesting point for future business-development strategists.

It’s a mistake to see the earlier fixed/nomadic WiMax as appealing more as a solution to increasing fixed broadband access in developing markets where the fixed network is weak, and mobile WiMax being of more interest to developed markets as a robust carrier-grade alternative to public WiFi. Just about everyone is now deploying (or converting to) the mobile 802.16e version of WiMax, even if they will initially use it only in fixed/nomadic mode. And developing markets do want the capability for sophisticated WiMax-based services, even if these will be rolled out only in later phases.

And some of the big emerging-market operators see a wider opportunity with WiMax by looking to exploit the technology to build global businesses. For example, Global Cloud Xchange , which is rolling out a large WiMax network in its home country of India, said in April 2008 that it would invest $500 million over the next two years to provide WiMax broadband IP access in 20 developing countries, via the acquisition of eWave World, a U.K.-based telecom group.

But it’s notable that the mainstream 3GPP mobile operators (so just about everyone that counts in mobile service provision) are generally shunning mobile WiMax in favor of continuing with deploying and enhancing current 3G technologies, while pushing for their 4G next generations, such as GSM Long Term Evolution (LTE).

Finally, something for Light Reading’s closet war-mongers, as military applications of WiMax are appearing. Although these can hardly count as proper (telecom or perhaps moral) deployment, vendors are producing adaptations of the technology to provide broadband links between general headquarters and deployed divisional and brigade headquarters, and also further down to company level.

Next Page: Operator Types & Their Market Focus

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