WiMAX in the Enterprise: Yawn

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...

Dave Molta

October 6, 2005

3 Min Read
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You can't really blame the proponents of WiMAX, including the WiMAX Forum, for therelentless hype that has surrounded this emerging wireless technology. Marketingprofessionals are hired to create buzz, to search for a sweet spot whereconsumers of information technology feel hungry yet unfulfilled. It's not their faultthat 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 thepromise, and it won't be easy.

Last week, I moderated a panel presentation on the evolution of WiMAX at the NextGeneration Networks (NGN) conference in Washington, DC. The session was wellattended and included presenters from Alcatel, Alvarion, Cisco and Towerstream.For the most part, the presentations were informative and largely grounded inreality. Even Mohammad Shakouri of Alvarion, who was speaking as chair of theWiMAX Forum marketing working group, avoided the temptation to fuel the flamesof enthusiasm, choosing instead to provide a rational view of the likely evolution ofWiMAX in the coming years. In private conversations, he expressed concern thatmarket expectations for WiMAX need to be better managed.

Unfortunately, expectations can be difficult to manage, and there's still an awful lotof confusion about the likely impact of WiMAX during the next five years. An NGNsession on trends in home networking made it clear that meeting emerging needsfor consumer-oriented converged digital voice, data and video services willeventually require a much fatter access pipe to your home, probably 100 megabitsper 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 thehome. However, this seemingly obvious reality didn't prevent Frank Dzubeck ofCommunications Network Architects, a leading industry voice and one of thepanelists in the NGN wrap-up session, from asserting that WiMAX may make wiredaccess entirely obsolete. Come again?

I'm not suggesting that there isn't a role for WiMAX as a broadband accesstechnology. For underserved areas worldwide, WiMAX provides a viable alternativeto guided media broadband access technologies based on DSL and cable. Althoughemerging interactive multimedia applications will almost certainly require a lot morebandwidth, even relatively slow megabit-speed broadband access services provideadequate power to fuel most mainstream voice and data applications. And to thedegree that WiMAX puts pressure on the telcos and big cable to enhanceperformance and reduce prices, that's good news for everyone. However, thepowerful combination of limited radio spectrum and the laws of physics are likely toforever 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 disruptivetechnology. However, mobile WiMAX (IEEE 802.16e) is an entirely different animal.Frankly, I think the projections of widespread adoption of standards-based mobileWiMAX in the 2007 to 2008 timeframe are wildly optimistic. Not only will it taketime for the underlying technology to mature, but there are also serious questionsabout whether adequate licensed spectrum suitable for this technology will beavailable, 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 thatcompany's many business challenges and its need to recover some of the costs ofits CDMA2000 EV-DO rollout, you can expect Sprint to be cautious.For enterprise IT professionals, it's tough to envision a compelling case for WiMAX,a point hammered home at NGN by Pat Calhoun, CTO of Cisco's wireless networkdivision. Yes, there may be some limited applications for multipoint fixed wireless inthe unlicensed 5-GHz band and perhaps some benefits for multinationalcorporations doing business in areas that provide limited wired infrastructure aswell. But as a strategic wireless technology, WiMAX can't stack up to Wi-Fi, which ismore mature and significantly better matched to enterprise voice and dataapplications.

Don't read this analysis wrong. Looking out 10 years, and assuming that Intel issuccessful in integrating WiMAX along with Wi-Fi on its mobile computing platforms,WiMAX may provide a compelling broadband alternative to 3G mobile data networks.But in the shorter term, when most of the enterprise purchase orders hit thestreet, Wi-Fi is still king.

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