Government Funds Flow to WiMAX

Published December 28, 2009

Firms providing WiMAX services, a step up from common wi-fi broadband connections, account for more than a quarter of the 1,000-plus applications for stimulus package grants to bridge the “last mile” between broadband access and the public.

While the technology is promising—as indicated by the telecommunications industry’s plans to invest $1.5 billion in WiMAX in 2010—it may represent a significant public investment in a service with a limited shelf life.

The “next generation” of wireless broadband could be a technology called Long-Term Evolution (LTE). While it’s just starting to take hold in Europe on an experimental basis, it could one day make WiMAX look puny in comparison.

Prez Betting on WiMAX

P. J. Louis, president of a New York-based telecommunications consultancy firm, believes President Obama’s broadband stimulus program is betting on WiMAX over LTE and the bet may not pay off in the way intended.

“They are concentrating on the implementation factor,” Louis said. “The goal here is to proliferate [broadband wireless] technology through the country. So if the broadband stimulus program increases WiMAX but also forces LTE proponents to speed up the delivery of their technology [in Europe], then I guess the stimulus package here was a success: It worked at sending technology and jobs out of the country,” he said.

Picking a Winner
Louis notes some American firms exploring LTE buildout are unhappy government policy seems to be picking WiMAX as a winning technology. He notes only one company concentrating on LTE applied for a piece of the $7 billion set aside for broadband stimulus.

On the whole, however, Louis says it is probably better for the government to invest in proven WiMAX technology if it’s going to spend public money.

“The stimulus program is not meant for testing new technologies,” Louis said. “These underserved markets need new technologies. When I hear people say they want LTE in places like rural markets, I get offended.

“LTE is only available in the laboratories,” he noted. “We need to deploy services to people so they can use them immediately.”

Call for Study
Rajit Gadh, Ph.D., a professor at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA, thinks WiMAX is the technology of the moment and says it is an encouraging sign that more than a quarter of the stimulus grant applications were from WiMAX operators.

“WiMAX is applicable to regions where you have a more spread-out population, and that fits the certain key characteristics of rural areas,” Gadh said.

Gadh believes the backers of both LTE and WiMAX should support an independent study to measure the effectiveness of both new technology programs, but he says WiMAX is “shovel-ready.”

“I am an engineer and a scientist, and I know that we absolutely need an objective assessment of these technologies, [to find out] which one is ultimately better,” Gadh said.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.