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Does WiMAX Still Stand a Chance?

Ever since WiMAX was introduced several years ago, there has been controversy over whether or not this technology is going to make a breakthrough in wireless broadband industry. The controversy could be partly due to the fact that the chip giant Intel has been behind the technology, and invested enormous resources to make it happen. It could also be because WiMAX had been hyped for so long before it was actually deployed, and by the time it began to roll out LTE emerged and the debate turned into WiMAX vs. LTE.

Three years ago I posted here about what 2008 will bring for WiMAX. I was betting on Intel’s integrating the technology into its chips, and on other mobile devices to embrace the technology too. Back then, I thought it was realistic to say “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.” The reality after three years is the absence of mass production of mobile and portable WiMAX devices, hence the inability of WiMAX to reach a mainstream.

Of course many will say that the economic downturn has affected the plans of many WiMAX players, which is true. But the other important development is the decision taken by major mobile carriers and vendors to adopt LTE rather than WiMAX as their upgrade path to 4G. Such a move is not a surprise, as LTE seems to be the natural evolution of existing 3G systems and infrastructures. However, it is also fair to say that WiMAX did not benefit from having a head start over LTE. What is more worrisome is the news coming from major WiMAX providers. Few months ago, the world’s second largest WiMAX operator, Yota, announced switching their network to LTE. News from Clearwire was not encouraging either as Sprint decided not to invest more in its WiMAX provider following a statement by its CEO that WiMAX “paid less than hoped”. As much as I hate to overestimate the possible consequences of such developments, I must say that if major WiMAX players begin to turn their back on a technology they have invested in for years, this can only make the future of WiMAX even more uncertain.

And while I don’t think that WiMAX is going to die, nor do I believe that LTE is going to play solely in the 4G space, there are yet a lot of questions about the future of WiMAX. Will it stand a chance in the mobile 4G market? How big its share going to be in that market compared to LTE and other technologies? Will it gain majority stake in mobile backhaul services and fixed / portable broadband wireless access? The picture is unclear right now, and it seems that only time will tell where WiMAX is going to end.

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VINTON CERF
Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet

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