WiMax is the bell of the wireless ball

Products, installations and customers show it has arrived

Now that the dust has settled from the recent WiMax World event, I've had some time to review my notes and the mountain of literature I grabbed at the conference. My first thought, of course, is that we need a better way to electronically distribute all of this paper. My office is a fire hazard, and there's no scanner big enough to capture everything I want to save. Somehow, as an industry, we need to get away from print.

Now that I've irritated paper, ink and press manufacturers everywhere, let's start with the big picture for WiMax here in late 2006. First, this event was very much a coming-out party for WiMax. After years of occasionally over-the-top hype, both fixed and mobile WiMax are real. There are real products, installations and customers. It appears that WiMax is going to be particularly successful in Asia, always the land of early adoption and innovation, and that there should be significant interest in this country because of the Sprint rollout, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. With more than 5,000 attendees, many conference sessions at WiMax World were packed, and the information from most of the event was correspondingly good. Full disclosure: I am a member of the advisory board for this event and have been since the first one in 2004. I have, however, no financial interest in WiMax World or its new owner, Yankee Group Research.

Most of the interest in WiMax at this event was directed toward the mobile variant, based on the IEEE 802.16e-2005 standard. Fixed WiMax exists in many forms, but, let's face it, the mobile version can do just about everything the fixed version can, save for reaching a higher-peak throughput. The convenience of mobility is clearly going to be a core driver for WiMax going forward, the same as it has been for cellular.

Speaking of cellular, one of my key missions at the conference was to find out why WiMax is winning rather than cellular technologies that promise similar performance, such as EV-DO Revisions B and C and 3GPP's Long Term Evolution. The answer was obvious: Mobile WiMax will be deployable next year, and the others are at least three years off.

Developing new wireless standards and technologies is very difficult, and aggressive schedules are seldom met. Anyone who wants to deploy large-cell mobile broadband over the next three years will see WiMax as clearly competitive against today's cellular offerings, EV-DO Rev. A and HSDPA/HSUPA. While I see future cellular offerings as similarly competitive with mobile WiMax, this gap in availability gives WiMax a real opportunity to become established. I heard this reasoning again and again at the event.

So, the technology is real, but what about the products? The show floor was packed with new products, including client devices, base stations and compelling approaches to the technology. The following are among those that caught my eye:

  • Motorola showed its mobile WiMax equipment, which I was told will go into production in the first quarter of next year. This is important, since Sprint is counting on Motorola to produce this equipment for the Sprint rollout, which should be under way by the fourth quarter of next year.
  • There were lots of chips vendors at the show, including Beceem, Intel, Runcom and Texas Instruments. This is the most important segment of the WiMax market to watch; these components and the reference designs sold by their vendors will largely define WiMax products, in much the same way that Wi-Fi chips define their products.
  • There was lots of talk about the ability to upgrade equipment based on 802.16-2004 (fixed WiMax) to mobile. This is great, but the two versions really are aimed at different markets, and the locations of base stations are a function of where the subscribers are and the laws of physics. So, although this capability is important, it's no guarantee of success for the vendors offering it. I expect rapid improvements in WiMax technology regardless, so older base stations may hit the scrap heap more rapidly than either vendors or buyers might like.
  • The metro-scale Wi-Fi crowd was surprisingly well represented. ADC (with a weatherized version of the Xirrus Wi-Fi Array), Siemens (with its BelAir product) and Trapeze Networks were touting the Wi-Fi line. Again, I think metro-scale Wi-Fi is complementary to WiMax and survives no matter what. There was no talk this year of WiMax being "Wi-Fi on steroids," and indeed it's not.
  • The coolest product at the show, was picoChip's reference design for a single-board "femtocell" implementation. This approach could lead to eventually deploying WiMax like metro-scale Wi-Fi, in inexpensive, limited-range mesh nodes with corresponding customer premises equipment.

So, lots of progress on many fronts this year. Many people I spoke with are expecting massive uptake in WiMax in Asia in 2007 and significant progress in the U.S. beginning in 2008. Still, the biggest variable in the success of WiMax is the competitive scenario. I think the cellular community is going to respond to WiMax in a big way. They have to, or they risk losing customers, and perhaps not just for data services but for voice as well. This situation is going to spawn one of the most memorable battles in the history of wireless -- and we users will benefit from the low prices, greater availability and higher performance that is likely to result no matter who wins.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with 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.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon