Analysis: WiMax hits the big time

Sprint's plan to deploy WiMax could mean a shift in the wireless industry

Sprint Nextel Corp.'s announcement this week that it's going to deploy mobile WiMax in the 2.5-GHz spectrum that it owns around the country surprised many.

WiMax is a true fourth-generation (4G) wireless technology that creats a huge number of opportunities and questions. The answers to those questions will have a profound effect on enterprise mobile computing strategies. (If you haven't looked at WiMax yet, you can start with the WiMax Forum's Web site.

Let's start with the basics. First, while there is no widely accepted definition of 4G, Farpoint Group defines it as a wireless, mobile, broadband, all-IP network or service with support for time-bounded traffic (for quality of service). WiMax meets this definition. All current cellular services are based on SS7 time-division multiplexing (TDM) technologies that are suitable for voice but difficult for data; 3G data services are distinct in current cellular implementations, but WiMax puts everything on IP. Interestingly, so does Wi-Fi -- yes, metropolitan-scale Wi-Fi is 4G. Note, by the way, that I don't place a throughput constraint on the above, but let's assume a lower bound of 1Mbit to 2Mbit/sec. Interestingly, I expect up to 100Mbit/sec. from metro-scale Wi-Fi using multiple input/multiple output, although this approach is just beginning to see deployments.

But WiMax is not, as I continue to read to the contrary, Wi-Fi on steroids. In fact, it has nothing to do with Wi-Fi. WiMax is a big-cell, licensed-bandwidth technology; Wi-Fi is a small-cell, unlicensed technology. They are, in fact, quite complementary. While I still expect to see converged cellular/Wi-Fi services as the most popular option to provision future broadband wireless networks, the Sprint announcement forces us to think in terms of converged WiMax/Wi-Fi and even dual mode WiMax/Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) services and devices.

This is because Sprint is one of the two major suppliers of EV-DO broadband services. The other is Verizon Wireless. In fact, they are in the middle of a major rollout of EV-DO Rev A, which boosts downlink speeds to 3.1 Mbit/sec. The uplink to 1.8 Mbit/sec. WiMax, of course, uses 16 times the bandwidth of EV-DO in its current form, 20 MHz vs. 1.25 MHz, and thus has much higher peak through to about 75Mbit/sec. But keep in mind that, being a big-cell technology, there could be a large number of users sharing that 75Mbit/sec. I've believed for some time that 5Mbit/sec. is a good upper bound on what users might see, and I think that holds in Sprint's case. It's worth nothing that the upgrade path for EV-DO includes a Revision B specification that offers performance in line with what WiMax can do. But it's safe to say that WiMax will get there first.

But that's still at least 18 months away, and the confusion factor in Sprint's announcement will need to be addressed. Suppose you're an IT manager and you want to roll out data services to the thousands of people in your field force. Will you go with Sprint's EV-DO; wait for WiMax; consider the competitive offerings from Verizon (also EV-DO) or Cingular Wireless LLC (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, with up to 14.4Mbit/sec); or perhaps choose something else, like metro-scale Wi-Fi? Sprint says it will continue to support EV-DO, but should a customer buy that, or is WiMax the way to go?

And there will be other options as well. The IEEE 802.20 effort, long derailed by politics, is getting back on track. I spoke with a few folks at Qualcomm Inc.'s Flarion Technologies Inc. unit, and they told me that not only do they offer a very viable competitor to WiMax; they are also forging ahead with a number of operational deployments. They also claimed greater spectral efficiency at less than or equal to the cost of WiMax equipment. And they noted that the other big mobile broadband effort, the 3GPP's LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and EV-DO Rev B are well along and will give WiMax, despite its enormous marketing momentum, a run for its money. There's even talk of an EV-DO Rev C that might come out of 802.20 or LTE, and we can't rule out other 4G entries in the future.

Still, there is no denying that Sprint's announcement was the first big, juicy pickle out of the WiMax jar. The strong support of Intel Corp. (chips) and Motorola Inc. (base station equipment), as well as handset leader Samsung Corp. adds fuel to Sprint's fire. Regardless, the WiMax community has renewed momentum, and the gap between wireline and wireless performance continues to narrow. But, as I've illustrated above, it's early, and WiMax won't be the only game in town.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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