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Special Feature

MOBILE BROADBAND: THE WIMAX OPPORTUNITY

by C.J. Mathias
     Farpoint Group
    

Even with all of the consciousness-raising and other marketing around the advent of WiMAX, there is still significant confusion as to exactly where it fits in the spectrum (so to speak) of available broadband technologies and the services based on them. It’s very clear that demand for broadband, and particularly mobile (and therefore wireless) broadband, will continue to grow at perhaps dramatic rates over the next few years, and that time-bounded services on broadband, particularly voice, are reshaping the entire world of telecommunications and networking. WiMAX has the opportunity to become a key player in both fixed and mobile broadband, and in fact to be a focal point for the convergence of telecom and networking services. But WiMAX is not the only game in town, and how WiMAX both competes and potentially cooperates with the other players will largely determine its success.

Let’s start with the basics. There are, in fact, two WiMAXes, one fixed, and one mobile. The fixed version, just now becoming available in products, is based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard with additional specification from the WiMAX Forum. We expect this WiMAX to dominate the point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access (BWA) market over the next few years, as the core benefits of standards (interoperability, lower costs and prices, and increased confidence among buyers) take hold. Most discussion today, however, seems to center on the still-in-development 802.16e standard, which extends WiMAX for mobility. Farpoint Group expects this standard to be quite distinct from 802.16-2004 with only a small likelihood of interoperability between the two, but that is okay – interoperability is not really needed as each is aimed at different markets and applications.

But this point begs the fundamental question surrounding future broadband deployments: will they be fixed or mobile? Farpoint Group believes that, just as has been the case with cellular telephony, mobility will win. The idea of carrying one’s broadband connection around, perhaps over very large geographic areas, is more than powerful and compelling – we expect it to become the norm over the next decade. But, as noted above, while mobile WiMAX has the potential to become a major player here, the competition is not willing to yield an inch.

Competition for mobile WiMAX actually comes from two directions. One of these is wireless LANs, based on IEEE 802.11 and Wi-Fi, deployed on a metro scale and almost always using mesh technology to enable low cost initial and incremental deployments. Because Wi-Fi is becoming ubiquitous (and, indeed, essentially free from the client perspective), we expect the demand for metro scale Wi-Fi to intensify over the next few years.

While mobile WiMAX has often been described as ‘Wi-Fi on steroids’, this is a poor analogy. Mobile WiMAX and Wi-Fi instead have the potential to be quite complementary even if they are not entirely orthogonal. This is because Wi-Fi is by its very nature a small cell technology and mobile WiMAX is, just like cellular telephony, a large cell technology. The size of the cell determines, quite obviously, range, but more importantly how quickly the frequencies used on a given cell can be reused, thus providing greater aggregate capacity. It would seem, then, that a combination of Wi-Fi and mobile WiMAX could be a marriage made in heaven, with Wi-Fi being used to provide coverage in high traffic-density areas and WiMAX providing services (primarily) beyond these venues. Bidirectional hand-off between the two would of course also be required. Note that both technologies can accommodate voice of the over-IP variety, thus bridging to, if not actually defining, what we expect 4G wireless to be.

The challenge to mobile WiMAX, however, is that such a vision is already being pursued between Wi-Fi and the broadband wireless technologies and services now being provisioned on cellular networks. Cellular services offering nominal throughput of 300-500Kbps are available on both CDMA2000 and UMTS networks today. And technologies like High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) hold the promise of increasing effective performance to 5Mbps or even more - and this is precisely the class of performance we expect to see in mobile WiMAX implementations in a few years. A number of firms are also already hard at work building the necessary standards, frameworks, and implementations for the hand-off of IP connections between WLANs and cellular systems. There is considerable debate as to what might be the ”right” approach for this vital function, but such is to be expected at this stage of both market and technological evolution. This uncertainty actually leaves the door open a little wider for mobile WiMAX to achieve significant market share in mobile broadband, but such most certainly cannot be guaranteed at this point. But since mobile WiMAX will provision an all-IP network with support for time-bounded services, it may very well challenge cellular in the race to 4G.

With demand for mobile broadband services essentially guaranteed to see rapid growth over the next few years, the opportunity is there for mobile WiMAX to become a key - if not leading - player. The other guys, however, aren’t standing still, and what’s shaping up will someday be remembered as one of the classic battles for both mindshare and market share.

About the Author:

Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, end users, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-known industry and technology analyst, and serves on the Advisory Boards of eight industry conferences.


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