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WiMAX Will Be Successful, as a Fringe Technology

A recent Infonetics press release says “WiMAX has gained such momentum across so many regions that it is no longer sensible to suggest that WiMAX growth will be flattened by the emergence of LTE [Long Term Evolution] in the next few years.”

Probably true, but it’s also clear WiMAX will never reach the scale of either mainstream wireless family, i.e., WiFi or GSM/3GSM. By comparison with these giants, WiMAX will be a fringe operation. The critical issue is volume, and what counts is the wireless technology brand, not the technology itself.

Both WiFi and GSM/3GSM have already evolved through multiple generations of technology while maintaining backwards compatibility and thus interoperability. Within the GSM community, there may be no commercial LTE subscribers as yet and relatively few HSPA subscribers, but more than a billion GSM/3GSM devices are manufactured each year with individual chip set product lines running multi-hundred million units per year. WiFi chipsets also run at hundred-million units per year rates. These volumes (and the guarantee of interoperability) mean GSM/3GSM and WiFi devices will always be substantially lower cost than anything WiMAX aspires to. [Note: today there are slightly less the 2 million WiMAX subscribers while optimistic projections suggest there will be more than 100 million in 2012.] WiMAX may have technology leadership, but it can’t catch up. WiFi and GSM are the wireless families that will prosper, each in it’s sphere—WiFi for unlicensed, GSM for licensed spectrum.

WiMAX will benefit from technology specific licensing in some emerging markets, i.e., valuable spectrum tied to specific technologies, So WiMAX will survive, even while it’s more expensive than LTE or WiFi. As for market share, the optimistic parallel is “CDMA cellular”, i.e. IS-95/ CDMA One/ CDMA 2000. CDMA had technology leadership and it managed to capture nearly 20% of the 2G cellular market at it’s peak, but it could never overtake GSM and, today, major operators are jumping ship to join the 3GSM crowd.

There may be a decade of contention, but in the end, WiMAX will die or be absorbed into the GSM brand.

By Brough Turner, Founder & CTO at netBlazr

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There is only one problem : That James Seng  –  Aug 20, 2008 9:26 PM

There is only one problem : That you assume LTE is going to be as successful.

Moving from 3.5G to LTE is a big change; moving from WCDMA/CDMA2000 to OFDMA. Moving to pure IP is another big since most 3G network are still on R4/R5 and pure IP post-R6 networks are rare (not much vendor anyone at economical price point). This means a huge capital expenses, overhauling almost every part of the network, from the ASN to the core.

Therefore, it is very likely LTE will take a path of 2G to 3G ... going to take a extremely long period of time before any telco will jump into it. It is inside that limbo that M.WIMAX may have a chance…And if it is not successful by then, then M.WIMAX has no chance.

The parallels with IS-95 and GSM moving to 3G are compelling Brough Turner  –  Aug 21, 2008 1:36 AM

James, We've already seen an equally big transition when the GSM community moved from the TDMA modulation used by original GSM to the CDMA modulation used in WCDMA. That change was as sweeping as the change from WCDMA (used by 3GSM) to OFDMA (used by LTE). The transition to WCDMA took years longer than expected. (In 1997 I heard people claiming 3G would be deployed by 2000.) And while this was happening, the IS-95 people were already using CDMA modulation and moving to CDMA 2000 (1xRTT, EV-DO, etc.) with data rates, at every stage, consistently ahead of 3GSM's WCDMA, HSDPA and HSPA. Yet GSM/3GSM won. I don't doubt LTE will be late. But GSM/3GSM/LTE will be dominant.

2G operator held out as long as James Seng  –  Aug 21, 2008 5:35 AM

2G operator held out as long as possible to move to 3G since they couldn't see a business case to overhaul their old profitable network. Data advantage in 3G was not attractive economically wise to move. But more importantly, there wasn't really any other path of upgrade from 2G. Perhaps an incremental 2.5G (EDGE) upgrade, but otherwise, the nature evolution is 3G. 3G to "4G" however now opens up two possible path - LTE and M.WIMAX. Sprint/Clearwire has taken on the latter but no operator has sign up for LTE (since it is not ready yet). So I would not be too quick to jump into conclusion that LTE will win. No doubt the operators would have more confident in GSMA standards. But if Sprint/Clearwire experiment is successful, it would be very hard to say how the market will go.

Think about the handsets and don't misunderstand Sprint/Clearwire Brough Turner  –  Aug 21, 2008 7:17 PM

The big delay for 3GSM (called UMTS at the time) was getting a handset that would do both TDMA (GSM) and CDMA (UMTS/WCDMA) modulation with acceptable battery life. In countries where IS-95/ CDMA One was available (Korea & the US), the migration to CDMA 2000 (1x, then 1xRTT) went much more rapidly. FOMA (pre-3GSM in Japan) only started to take off in mid-2003 as the first usable handsets only showed up in Feb-March 2003. The EU took more than another year to get comparable handsets (as the Japanese vendors were doing PDC/WCDMA and Europe needed GSM/WCDMA). For 2G to 3G, the delay was to get backwards compatible handsets. Mobile WiMAX will work in green fields deployment (emerging markets), but anywhere else the issue will be backwards compatible handsets and here we can expect LTE to do far better than WiMAX. Also, be careful about jumping to conclusions about Sprint. Sprint runs a major US cellular service using CDMA 2000 technology. They also own some currently idle spectrum at 2.5 GHz which they have effectively ceded to Craig McCaw (founder of Clearwire) who is setting the strategy for the Sprint/Clearwire venture. Craig McCaw is a sharp guy and will likely make something of this spectrum using pre-WiMAX (today) and WiMAX longer term, however, his focus is on broadband Internet access. It's not clear there will be a competitive mobile voice telephony service here. It is clear that Craig McCaw is in control now, not Sprint. Meanwhile, there are four national 3G cellular networks in the US. AT&T;and T-Mobile USA both use GSM/3GSM with plans to move to LTE. Verizon and Sprint both use CDMA 2000 (plus Sprint owns the Nextel iDEN network). Verizon has already announced they will move to LTE (not to CDMA 2000's successor UMB which appears to be dead in the water). In fact, CDMA 2000 operators in Australia, China, Japan and Korea have announced plans to move to HSPA or LTE. Sprint has not said what they will do to migrate their cellular network beyond CDMA 2000 EVDO Rev A. If they do go to WiMAX instead of LTE, they will be the only CDMA 2000 operator to do so.

One of the delay of moving to James Seng  –  Aug 21, 2008 9:29 PM

One of the delay of moving to 3G is the handset, yes, but a big part of the problem is operator do not see the benefit of 3G back then. The same question is being asked: Whats is LTE going to do that give a boost to the business beyond 3.5G? Without any LTE products in the market, not to mention pricing information, my guess is that for operators who say they have plans for LTE has to do more with claiming the rights to spectrum than actual plan. CDMA2000 operators are stuck since their upgrade path ends there with EvDox1, and from there they have to pick either LTE or WiMAX. WCDMA operators have a longer lifetime so they can wait.

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