Mobile WiMax vs. 3G: Will faster and cheaper win?

The questions remains whether the WiMax rhetoric can match the reality

For years, third-generation cellular data technology has been the belle of the mobile wireless ball. In recent months, though, mobile WiMax has emerged, and some believe it will knock 3G off its pedestal.

"Mobile WiMax is definitely picking up momentum," said Daniel Locke, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Pyramid Research. "It's a clear winner in terms of performance and price." However, Locke quickly added what most analysts and other observers include when talking about mobile WiMax: a caveat.

"It'll be a winner, that is, if what [proponents] say about it turns out to be true," Locke said.

Sprint Nextel, which also has a 3G network, announced last autumn that it will build a $3 billion nationwide mobile WiMax network, which it claims will be faster and cheaper than 3G networks, including its own. That new network is due to launch in Chicago and Washington later this year, with other U.S. cities to follow in 2008.

Then Clearwire LLC, which currently provides only fixed WiMax service in small markets, obtained about $1 billion in financing that it will use to develop a nationwide mobile WiMax network. Clearwire also recently acquired a chunk of WiMax-appropriate spectrum from AT&T Inc.

And in the past two weeks, the IEEE Standards Association launched its effort to create a next-generation mobile WiMax standard that will potentially provide gigabit-level speeds, according to a working document from the organization (download PDF). That effort is starting even before current-generation mobile WiMax equipment is widely available.

While nobody doubts mobile WiMax's momentum, many are expressing strong doubts.

"It has to overcome a whole lot of hurdles that [proponents] are saying are insignificant," said Derek Kerton, principal of the Kerton Group, a telecom consulting firm. "They have to match rhetoric to reality."

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