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WiMAX hype peaks

Now it's time to deliver the technology, warns analyst

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The hype surrounding the WiMAX wireless broadband standard has peaked - from now on it's down to companies supporting the technology to deliver on their promises in a timely fashion.

So said Gartner research analyst Ian Keene yesterday, speaking at a demonstration of the wide-area WLAN system put on at the UK Science Museum's Wroughton facility by one of the technology's leading proponents, Intel. Keene declared himself "optimistic" that the technology can make its mark in the wireless market.

If it's to do so, he said, Intel and other WiMAX backers need to demonstrate success

Keene's timetable calls for the roll-out of equipment based on the 802.16d specification - the so-called 'WiMAX 2004' standard - and certified as such by the end of the year. That will enable service providers - both established players and new market entrants attracted by the technology's low cost - to begin providing wireless broadband services.

If those efforts are to lead anywhere, said Keene, they must be followed by the arrival of "low-cost", easy to install reception equipment for customers. His definition of low-cost is under $1,000, and it has to be capable of indoor - ie. cheap - installation. That applies as much to WiMAX's potential customers in the West as to users in developing countries, where WiMAX is being touted as a way of cheaply bringing broadband to the cable-less masses.

Products based on the 802.16e WiMAX 2005 specification, which extends the technology from fixed-location clients to mobile devices, have to begin to appear late 2006, according to Keene's roadmap, leading to their integration into notebook PCs in the late 2008 timeframe - essentially to make 802.16e client availability as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi has become.

Of course, Wi-Fi was something notebook owners could use themselves, simply by buying a cheap access point. WiMAX, on the other hand, will primarily be a service delivered by third-parties, and require contracts. In that respect, it's far less open to user experimentation - "let's see what this does" - than Wi-Fi

Keene's timetable is more conservative than Intel's which calls for WiMAX to be built into notebooks next year.

Wireless Broadband

Meanwhile, the South Korean experiments with WiBro - short for 'Wireless Broadband' - also need to prove successful. WiBro is a WiMAX-like system developed in South Korea to provide better data handling than 3G cellular networks can provide before 4G networks arrive. There are movements to integrate WiBro into WiMax, but the WiBro experiment is really about demonstrating demand for mobile, data-centric broadband networks alongside 3G.

"If WiBro can succeed in South Korea," Keene forecast, "WiMAX can succeed everywhere."

The advantage WiBro - and, by extension, WiMAX - offers over 3G is a more data-centric focus. It's also cheaper. Keene revealed his scepticism that mobile phone networks will be willing to roll out higher speed 3G network upgrades based on the HSDPA (High Speed Data Packet Access) quickly, and even if they do, there remains the bandwidth limitations inherent in the technology's cellular architecture. The system needs to cater not only for voice users but multiple data users, all sharing the available bandwidth. If too many users attach themselves to a given cell, their bandwith will fall.

That said, WiMAX is not going to trample all over 3G, or vice versa, said Keene. "There will be no winner," he said, pointing to forecasts that come 2007, most large-scale enterprises will be using at least five wireless technologies.

3G clearly isn't going to go away, and even if it becomes the dominant high-speed data network, there's still a big opportunity for WiMAX in metropolitan areas, Keene believes. "WiMAX will never displace 3G," he said, "but it doesn't have to create a market."

Crucially, it's simply too soon to say how the various technologies will co-exist. It's too early for businesses to assess the cost of 3G, said Keene, and build return-on-investment models. If it's deployed quickly enough, that may favour the seemingly cheaper WiMAX. "WiMAX is a data-centric service, so it can be simpler [than 3G]," said Keene. Generally, 'more simple' equals 'less expensive'. ®

Related stories

Tokyo to enjoy city-wide WiMAX
Qualcomm: WiMax isn't magic
T-Mobile launches WiMax net access for UK trains
WiMAX turns the screw on 3G
Motorola damns WiMAX with faint praise
WiMAX delay shakes investor confidence

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