You can't really blame the proponents of WiMAX, including the WiMAX Forum, for the
relentless hype that has surrounded this emerging wireless technology. Marketing
professionals are hired to create buzz, to search for a sweet spot where
consumers of information technology feel hungry yet unfulfilled. It's not their fault
that some journalist with limited technical knowledge labeled it "Wi-Fi on Steroids."
Still, there's mounting pressure on the WiMAX industry to deliver on some of the
promise, and it won't be easy.
Last week, I moderated a panel presentation on the evolution of WiMAX at the Next
Generation Networks (NGN) conference in Washington, DC. The session was well
attended and included presenters from Alcatel, Alvarion, Cisco and Towerstream.
For the most part, the presentations were informative and largely grounded in
reality. Even Mohammad Shakouri of Alvarion, who was speaking as chair of the
WiMAX Forum marketing working group, avoided the temptation to fuel the flames
of enthusiasm, choosing instead to provide a rational view of the likely evolution of
WiMAX in the coming years. In private conversations, he expressed concern that
market expectations for WiMAX need to be better managed.
Unfortunately, expectations can be difficult to manage, and there's still an awful lot
of confusion about the likely impact of WiMAX during the next five years. An NGN
session on trends in home networking made it clear that meeting emerging needs
for consumer-oriented converged digital voice, data and video services will
eventually require a much fatter access pipe to your home, probably 100 megabits
per second or more. That's the reason Verizon is spending billions on its next-
generation network, a key element of which involves pulling fiber cables into the
home. However, this seemingly obvious reality didn't prevent Frank Dzubeck of
Communications Network Architects, a leading industry voice and one of the
panelists in the NGN wrap-up session, from asserting that WiMAX may make wired
access entirely obsolete. Come again?
I'm not suggesting that there isn't a role for WiMAX as a broadband access
technology. For underserved areas worldwide, WiMAX provides a viable alternative
to guided media broadband access technologies based on DSL and cable. Although
emerging interactive multimedia applications will almost certainly require a lot more
bandwidth, even relatively slow megabit-speed broadband access services provide
adequate power to fuel most mainstream voice and data applications. And to the
degree that WiMAX puts pressure on the telcos and big cable to enhance
performance and reduce prices, that's good news for everyone. However, the
powerful combination of limited radio spectrum and the laws of physics are likely to
forever condemn WiMAX to second-class status as a broadband access technology.
Despite some tactical benefits, it's tough to think of fixed-WiMAX as a disruptive
technology. However, mobile WiMAX (IEEE 802.16e) is an entirely different animal.
Frankly, I think the projections of widespread adoption of standards-based mobile
WiMAX in the 2007 to 2008 timeframe are wildly optimistic. Not only will it take
time for the underlying technology to mature, but there are also serious questions
about whether adequate licensed spectrum suitable for this technology will be
available, especially in the U.S. market. Mobile WiMAX will most likely find its U.S.
home in the 2.5-GHz MMDS band, which is largely controlled by Sprint. Given that
company's many business challenges and its need to recover some of the costs of
its CDMA2000 EV-DO rollout, you can expect Sprint to be cautious.