A WiMax Update

A WiMax Update

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Jeff Goldman

June 07, 2004

There’s a new working group, new members of the forum — and some clarifications on the different markets for 802.16-based wireless.

Last week, the WiMax Forum announced the formation of a Regulatory Working Group, tasked with improving availability of WiMax spectrum worldwide. “The availability of spectrum is mission critical for enabling mass-market deployments,” says Intel’s Margaret LaBrecque, the working group’s chairperson.

Michael Cai, senior analyst at the market research firm Parks Associates, says the group’s efforts will be crucial for global deployment of WiMax technology.

“They need to try to align spectrum policy around the world, because right now, different countries have different regulations and different spectrum bands for broadband wireless or cellular networks,” Cai says. “It’s a total mess.”

New Members

Other recent developments for the Forum include the addition of Alcatel and Siemens Mobile as members, as well as the departure of Nokia.

Cai says the presence of Alcatel and Siemens is good news for the Forum. “The argument the WiMax Forum makes is that it doesn’t matter if Nokia drops out–they’ve got other large equipment vendors,” he says.

Nokia’s departure, Cai suggests, isn’t particularly big news. “Nokia had been thinking about dropping out for a long time,” he says. “802.16e will potentially compete against other technologies — and Nokia has to think about its own 3G strategies against WiMax, since they already own a lot of cellular technology patents related to WCDMA and HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access).”

In addition, the Forum recently added an extended FAQ section to their Web site, which Cai says was sorely needed. “They actually explain the difference between the different standards, and how the WiMax Forum thinks the market is going to develop,” he says.

Different Flavors

One of the most easily misunderstood aspects of WiMax is the fact that it actually covers more than one standard. A new report from Parks Associates, entitled Untethering Broadband: WiMax, 802.20, and Others, attempts to make this clear. According to Cai, it’s crucial to understand the difference between the two main WiMax standards, 802.16REVd and 802.16e.

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“Everybody kind of knows WiMax has two different flavors, and those are really two different value propositions–but most of the time, you see people forecasting the WiMax market as if it’s only one single value proposition and a single standard,” he says. “I think it’s good to remind the industry that that’s wrong.”

The easiest way to differentiate between the two WiMax standards, Cai suggests, would be to call 802.16REVd “fixed wireless,” and to call 802.16e “nomadic wireless” or “semi-mobile wireless.” An additional standard, 802.20, may be adopted further down the road, as a truly “mobile wireless” standard alongside similar proprietary technologies.

Cai says the nomadic 802.16e standard is currently much more relevant to the U.S. market than 802.16REVd, since fixed wireless is only appropriate in a few areas.

“In the United States, because the wired infrastructure is so advanced, only about 20 percent of the households can’t get broadband access today,” he says. “So the best target market in the U.S. will be those underserved markets, and that’s pretty small.”

Many people, Cai says, believe the two technologies have more in common than they really do. “What they think is, first you have an 802.16REVd infrastructure, and then in the future if people demand more mobile data, you can add some hardware and software, and people become mobile,” he says. “But they’re really two different markets. Mobile data is enterprise users and high data users, a very different group from people in underserved markets.”

It’s possible that in the future, Intel will offer an 802.16d/e dual mode chip, just like the Wi-Fi 802.11a/g chips available today — but Cai says it really comes down to the market, not the technology. “There will be a lot of market potential for 802.16REVd in developing countries where wired infrastructure is not complete, but in the U.S., only a small portion of the people will be using 802.16REVd,” he says.

Future Challenges

That may change, though, if Craig McCaw’s new venture succeeds. Last week, McCaw announced the formation of Clearwire, a company that aims to provide a nationwide wireless network using future WiMax technologies. Clearwire will launch its first commercial services in Jacksonville, Florida this summer.

Since Clearwire would be almost entirely dependent on 802.16REVd, Cai says McCaw’s company could have an enormous impact on the use of the technology in the United States. “If he can succeed, then there might be a good market potential for the fixed flavor of WiMax,” he says. “Otherwise, 802.16REVd will be limited to the underserved markets, at least in the U.S.”

On the other side of the coin, Cai says 802.16e will face some challenges as well. “802.16e isn’t like Wi-Fi,” he says. “If you have a Wi-Fi card in your laptop, that might encourage you to go to Fry’s or Best Buy to buy a Wi-Fi access point, because it’s cheap and you can install it yourself in your home. But you can’t build an 802.16e network by yourself–you need service providers to build the network for you.”

As a result, Cai says, it’s important that people not only understand the various flavors of WiMax, but that they understand the differences between WiMax and Wi-Fi as well. “Although a lot of people compare WiMax to Wi-Fi, that’s not something we should encourage,” he says. “Wi-Fi is really a consumer-driven business model, while WiMax is a service provider driven business model.”

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