Time still on the side of WiMAX

It’s premature to say that WiMAX is losing its time-to-market advantage over rival LTE, despite some of the hard knocks the technology has undoubtedly taken in recent weeks.

The announcement by Alcatel-Lucent last month that it was trimming down its WiMAX investment and focusing on LTE for ‘4G’ mobility was a particularly heavy blow for the WiMAX camp to take. As a leading WiMAX supplier, Alcatel-Lucent’s decision to take its foot off the 802.16e pedal does nothing to reassure operators that may have concerns about the long-term prospects of mobile WiMAX.

There are, of course, some big hitters still on the WiMAX supply side, not least Intel and Motorola. And Alvarion, an Israel-headquartered supplier of WiMAX kit, looks in a much stronger position following Alcatel-Lucent’s R&D shift on 4G.

Already managing to grow significantly sales of its mobile WiMAX RAN portfolio in recent months, the Israeli supplier is rapidly becoming a key WiMAX player. According to Infonetics Research, Alvarion actually overtook Alcatel-Lucent and Motorola in the mobile WiMAX market in terms of revenue during 3Q 2008.

Alvarion’s progress has been helped by its Open WiMAX programme, which involves building up a range of proven supplier partners – whose kit is interoperable with each other – to provide an ‘end-to-end WiMAX network’. In this way, Alvarion can position itself in front of operators as a turnkey supplier, even though it is not a tier one player.

And let’s not forget about Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE – both members of the WiMAX Forum – which are now established suppliers on the international stage and appear committed to the technology (as well as LTE it has to be said). According to Lin Sun, a telecom analyst based in China, Huawei has 1,200 engineers dedicated to WiMAX product development and owns 100 WiMAX-related patents, which is more than any other company. And ZTE, reports Sun, began OFDM research as far back as 1998. As well as WiMAX infrastructure, Huawei and ZTE are also keen to develop end-users devices for WiMAX – both already have WiMAX dongles available in the marketplace.

Even so, Nokia’s announcement this month to stop production of its only WiMAX device, the N810 Internet Tablet, was another big blow to the WiMAX community. After all, this device was proudly referred to by Sprint in the run-up to the Xohm launch as something that would drive service take-up. Nokia, apparently, did not anticipate sufficient volumes to justify continued commitment to the WiMAX-enabled N810.

The worsening economic conditions are clearly not going to help WiMAX. But just as it is reasonable to expect some WiMAX rollouts to be delayed or limited this year because of a lack of capital and the prospect of lower consumer spending, so it must be reasonable to assume that the extent of the first commercial LTE rollouts will not be as aggressive as suggested by Ericsson (in the 2009-2010 timeframe).

Most of the big-name mobile operators that say they are going for LTE will want to limit capex in these straitened times and squeeze as much as possible out of their existing cellular networks

The big question is: how far will this matter to the LTE and WiMAX camps? If demand for ‘4G’ is not really there anyway until, say, the 2014-15 timeframe (which is the view of Richard Windsor at Nomura Bank) then LTE suppliers should be more than ready to meet the demand when it comes. As such, any ‘delay’ now in LTE investment – due to economic conditions, operator investment cycles or even technology wrinkles – would not be a crushing blow.

From the WiMAX perspective, they ideally need operators to make their move as soon as possible and prove that the technological time-to-market advantage it has over LTE is one worth having. If WiMAX operators can show there is strong demand for ‘4G’ this year and the next – particularly the big ones, such as Clearwire in the US and UQ Communications in Japan – the technology’s supporters will be able to make the point forcefully that the time-to-market advantage does indeed matter. Who knows, it might even persuade some mobile operators to rethink their LTE commitment if they were being pushed hard enough (and soon enough) by a successful WIMAX play in their own markets.

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  1. Avatar Sarah Kindle 20/01/2009 @ 6:19 pm

    I just started surfing on a WiMAX connection and I love it! I live in Portland and I use Clear wireless internet (www.clear.com/?utm_source=bc) and they operate on a WiMAX system. I get 200MB for $30 a month (I don’t use the computer that much) and I get to surf the web wirelessly throughout downtown Portland. I love WiMAX, and I recommend looking for Clear cause it’s coming to a city near you – soon!

  2. Avatar Philip Carberry 21/01/2009 @ 7:15 pm

    Today Mobile Wimax is a very useful product,
    that has a very bright future.It will lift the skyline and break down the barriers of the mobile devices we use today,
    giving the chance and support.

  3. Avatar 4G Boy 30/01/2009 @ 8:17 pm

    The largest and most important market advantage for WiMax was the concept of speed to market (a 1 to 3 year head start over Vz and ATT). WiMax IS a great technology, but its time frame lead is and will be eroded by delays in funding and flawed assumptions in getting the most important markets launched in a an aggressive time frame with significant coverage. LTE will be cheaper to deploy and support over time.

    Clearwire will fail as their spectrum fails to penetrate (poor in building coverage) and they will face the reality that their current plan is underfunded by a funds as well as engineering perspective.

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