Mobile WiMax gear lifts off

Equipment based on the emerging 802.16e standard is leading the way

Mobile WiMax, hyped for years by Intel Corp. and other vendors, has turned a corner toward reality, according to industry observers.

Mobile technology is outpacing the licensed wireless broadband market overall, and gear based on the emerging IEEE 802.16e mobile WiMax standard is leading the way, Sky Light Research said.

Unit shipments of network equipment and end-user devices for mobile broadband data grew 117% in 2006 from the previous year, according to Sky Light, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Products built to the IEEE 802.16e standard lead in growth even though the WiMax Forum industry group hasn't started certifying that the mobile products work together, said Sky Light analyst Donna Carlson. WiMax Forum certification is set to begin in the middle of this year.

Sky Light's report also included TD-CDMA (Time Division-Code Division Multiple Access), IEEE 802.20 and proprietary products using OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access). It did not include advanced third-generation (3G) mobile systems because they are voice-based, Carlson said.

The entire wireless broadband market is fairly small, with about 26,000 base stations and about 1.5 million units of customer equipment shipped last year. Base station units overall were up 57% and customer gear up 88%. But mobile WiMax is just gaining momentum, Carlson said.

Intel's backing has given WiMax a leg up, and Sprint Nextel Corp. made a big difference when it announced last year it will deploy mobile WiMax across the country for commercial service starting next year, Carlson said.

"It helped to sway carriers and open dialogs that were pretty much on hold for a while," Carlson said.

Analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis Inc. agreed.

"We've definitely built up momentum, and we're over that hump," Jarich said. Another driver has been the European Commission's move toward letting service providers use WiMax and other technologies in a spectrum band coming up for auction soon. The spectrum, around 2.5GHz, had originally been envisioned as being used for 3G cellular networks.

The WiMax Forum's second wave of certification is what really matters, Jarich said, because it will include performance-enhancing features such as MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) antenna systems and beam-forming. He predicts that testing will start late this year or in early 2008. Vendors are already rolling out 802.16e products that can probably be modified if necessary for certification, he said.

The progress doesn't mean there won't be kinks to work out, Jarich added. For the first year it's out there, the performance of mobile WiMax may disappoint users, he said. For one thing, unlike 3G systems, WiMax wasn't designed for mobility from the beginning, so it may take time to work out functions such as handoffs. But with real-world experience, carriers and vendors will be able to work out those problems, he said.

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