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Will 2008 be the WiMAX Year?

There has recently been some good and bad news about WiMAX. On the good news part, an announcement made by the WiMAX Forum this month regarding the launching of the Mobile WiMAX certification program through which vendors can get their IEEE 802.16e-2005 equipment tested and possibly certified. Such certificates guarantee interoperability among various products and hence encourage operators and service providers to invest in WiMAX deployments. Also this month, Ofcom announced an auction to take place in mid-2008 on two bands of the 2.6GHz spectrum. These bands could potentially be used in expanding existing 3G services, as well as in deploying fixed and mobile WiMAX networks. Another piece of good news came from the ITU-R couple of months ago when it approved WiMAX as one of the IMT-2000 set of standards, a decision that sent positive signals to the industry that considers ITU’s endorsement to technologies and standards especially in the mobile arena where lots of investments are spent in infrastructures and spectrum. Cisco’s recent acquisition of the WiMAX startup Navini is also good news because it indicates that the network equipment giant is gearing up for a promising technology.

On the bad news part, there was the Sprint-Clearwire breakup after three months of announcing a plan to join forces in building a nationwide WiMAX network in the US. Although it is anticipated that each company would carry on with its own WiMAX plans, analysts believe that the breakup would have negative impact on WiMAX deployment in the US and may as well slowdown its development worldwide. This comes amid a couple of important announcements by Verizon Wireless and Nokia Siemens Networks, as the former is going to deploy its 4G network using a competing technology called LTE (Long Term Evolution), while the latter has completed a successful field trial using the same technology. LTE is a potential successor to 3G, and theoretically supports data rates up to 170 Mbps. The effect that LTE may have on mobile WiMAX is yet not clear. Analysts believe that although mobile WiMAX is running ahead other competing technologies in terms of standard development and product shipment, it is very unlikely that it will be the sole winner in the 4G race.

So what will 2008 bring for WiMAX? It is anticipated that more commercial deployments will take place both on the fixed and the mobile sides of WiMAX. As 802.16e-2005 equipment get certified, operators and service providers will be more willing to deploy the technology. But that would be nothing more than the normal progress in rolling out WiMAX services here and there. The real breakthrough of WiMAX will not happen until it becomes integrated into consumer devices which I believe is key challenge for Intel over the next year. Intel has revealed its plans to integrate Wi-Fi and WiMAX into its next mobile chip for laptops called Montevina. According to Intel, the new platform should be ready by mid-2008. Although this would be a major milestone in the WiMAX development, we should not be overestimating the consequence. Like any new technology or service, massive consumer demand does not happen overnight. It will be at least a couple of years till we see a mass production of mobile WiMAX products and only then can we say that WiMAX is a reality.

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