WiMax Gets Ready for Prime Time

Published May 1, 2007

WiMax–the wide area, meshed, broadband radio network technology that has been discussed for a long time as “just a few years away”–is finally coming to fruition. The first deployments are expected in Europe, where several countries have either auctioned the necessary spectrum or plan to do so this year.

Vendors and carriers have responded by increasing investment in WiMax equipment. They aim to roll out rudimentary service within the next 12 to 18 months.

WiMax has much broader range than the WiFi technology increasingly common in coffee shops, hotels, and restaurants, as well as with municipal wireless planners. Those WiFi deployments are typically limited to the front door of the establishment and may have dead spots within the structure–a flaw for which hotels are now notorious.

WiMax, by contrast, can cover some 30 miles. By using a low spectrum combined with so-called third generation (3G) wireless technology, WiMax enables people to stay connected even when in motion or on public transportation.

Its greater range, higher bandwidth, and lower cost relative to competing technologies–such as “third-generation (3G)” cellular–is why WiMax is attracting a lot of attention for deployment in municipal areas in the United States and abroad.

Deployment May Be Imminent

The U.K. is expected to auction WiMax licenses later this year, following France and Germany, which awarded licenses in 2006.

The United States may not be too far behind in wider deployment of the technology. Several U.S. companies have invested heavily in WiMax. Sprint, for example, will invest some $3 billion in the technology in the next two years, and is working on development of WiMax chipsets, transmitters, network interface cards, and phones with several other firms in the telecom industry, including Intel, Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung.

Licenses Issued

Last August, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned 1,122 licenses in the 1.7 and 2.1 GHz band. Winners included a number of phone, cable, and wireless companies that plan to use the spectrum to support a variety of different broadband wireless technologies. Some, such as Sprint and Clearwire, a Kirkland, Washington-based wireless service provider, have committed to WiMax.

Clearwire, which launched an initial public offering in March, has 200 WiMax trials underway worldwide.

In February, Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent announced it has invested in Sequans Communications, a leading supplier and developer of fixed and mobile WiMax semiconductor solutions. Terms of the investment agreement were not disclosed.

“Our investment in Sequans shows our commitment to WiMax and our interest in supporting the development of the leading WiMax technologies,” said Karim El Naggar, vice president of Alcatel-Lucent’s WiMax business unit, in a press statement. “Sequans’ high-performance chips are an important element helping to ensure Alcatel-Lucent’s leading position in this industry.”

Muni Systems Threatened

Widespread deployment of WiMax could put entrenched municipal systems at a disadvantage. Many municipalities have already invested significant sums in WiFi, which in the end may prove uncompetitive with WiMax.

The industry is already looking beyond WiMax toward a common technology, dubbed Long Term Evolution (LTE) of 3G Technologies, toward which incompatible WiFi, WiMax, and 3G cellular networks could evolve. According to a new study from ABI Research in London, network operators will invest nearly $18 billion in LTE capital infrastructure through 2014. This will yield a significant payoff, both in reduction of operating expenses and in the creation of new revenue from IP-based services, ABI says.

“LTE faces competition from other broadband wireless technologies, and it will need to demonstrate clear technical and economic advantages to convince network operators,” said ABI research analyst Ian Cox in a statement. “WiMax has a two-year lead over LTE but suffers from not being backwards-compatible with current 3G technologies. LTE is likely to be used to upgrade [cellular] networks as well.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.