WiMAX volumes may finally be coming

The WiMAX industry continues to suffer from delays and a lack of scale, but can now point to signs that volumes may finally be on the way due a growing number of significant deployments by operators such as Packet One in Malaysia, Yota and Comstar in Russia, Cleawire and its MVNO Time Warner Cable in the US, and UQ Communications in Japan.

Attendees at last week’s WiMAX Forum Global Congress in Amsterdam were treated to a procession of operators committed to WiMAX, but attendance was significantly down from last year, and behind the scenes vendors fretted about rollouts being delayed due to everything from a lack of spectrum—for example in India and Brazil—to a lack of funding due to the financial crisis and economic downturn. For vendors, this means it could be 2010 before they see significant revenues from selling WiMAX equipment. That is several years later than many vendors expected, which is likely to lead more players to withdraw from the segment.

On a more positive note, operators such as Packet One Networks (p1) in Malaysia are gaining significant momentum. P1, which has 30MHz of 2.3GHz spectrum, launched services in August 2008 and now has 350 base stations installed in Malaysia’s five largest cities, covering 25% of the country’s population. The operator says it had 35,000 subscribers at the end of 1Q09, will pass 100,000 by August, and aims to have more than 200,000 subs by year-end. The operator says that in 1Q09 it took 30% of fixed broadband net additions in Malaysia, despite having a population coverage of only 25% compared to near 100% for the incumbent fixed broadband operator.

Yota, which claims a nationwide footprint of 2.5GHz spectrum in Russia, launched commercial services in Moscow on June 1, following the launch of free trial services in Moscow and St. Petersburg in November 2008. Yota’s WiMAX devices include USB modems, notebooks with embedded WiMAX, and an HTC smartphone supporting both WiMAX and GSM. Yota’s tariffs include a $30 per month plan offering unlimited usage, speeds up to 10Mbps and unlimited downloads from Yota’s online music service. Yota says that since its trial launch in November it has sold 75,000 WiMAX devices, 15,000 of those the HTC mobile device, and expects 70-80% of trial users to convert to paying customers. During the trial at the end of May it had 75,000 customers and is adding an average of 40,000 per month. The operator plans to have full coverage in Moscow, St. Petersburg and three other cities by end-2009, for a total population coverage of 26 million via 1600 base stations.

Comstar, the largest fixed broadband operator in Moscow, says it soft-launched WiMAX services in Moscow in May with 170 base stations running in the 2.5GHz band. The operator is focused on portable devices including USB modems and notebooks, and says the network supports peak downlink speeds up to 12Mbps and typical speeds of 2-7Mbps. Its tariffs start at $9 per month for 1GB and increase to $16 per month for 2GB and $22 per month for 5GB. Comstar says it has invested $20 million in the service so far, but does not detail subscriber numbers.

US-based Cleawire launched Mobile WiMAX services in Portland, Oregon in January 2009 and in Atlanta in May, and says it is on track to have services in 80 US markets with 120 million people by end-2010. Time Warner Cable, an investor in Clearwire, says it will be an MVNO on the Clear WiMAX network and will launch services in at least one of its existing markets by the end of 2009. The operator’s significant cable markets are New York, Los Angeles, North and South Carolina, Texas and Hawaii. Clearwire plans to launch services in Dallas Ft. Worth, Honolulu and Charlotte in 2009, along with other major markets including Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charlotte. The operator, which says it has more than 18,000 base station sites in deployment, plans to launch services in 2010 in New York City, Washington DC, Houston, Boston and the San Francisco Bay area.

Meanwhile Japan’s UQ Communications says it launched trial services in February and is on track to launch commercial services in July. The trial service runs on 600 base stations running in the 2.5GHz band, and provides peak downstream speeds of 10-15Mbps. UQ says it plans to have 4,000 base stations deployed by end-March 2010, when it expects to have some 300,000 subscribers. The operator plans to have 90% population coverage by March 2012 via 38,000 base stations, some 19,000 of which will be indoor solutions including femtocells. UQ has the only WiMAX license in Japan and must provide open access to MVNO operators. The operator says it has had discussions with 50 potential MVNO partners. One confirmed MVNO partner is mobile operator KDDI, the lead investor in UQ.

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