WiMAX: willing and scalable

Behind the touchscreen and ‘app store’ fanfare at the MWC event in Barcelona last week, WiMAX was taking quiet but significant steps towards having what the WiMAX Forum believes will be 800 million people within reach of WiMAX networks by 2010.

Alcatel-Lucent and Alvarion, two of the biggest suppliers in the mobile WiMAX space, each announced in the Catalan city they had received the WiMAX Forum seal of approval for their respective 802.16e base stations in the 3.5GHz frequency band. WiMAX heavyweights Samsung and ZTE made similar WiMAX Forum certification announcements on their respective 3.5GHz products only a few weeks ago.

Certification at 3.5GHz is a key part of WiMAX progress as most 802.16e deployments to date run in this part of the spectrum. Out of the 34 Alcatel-Lucent’s mobile WiMAX commercial deployments worldwide, for example, 21 are in the 3.5GHz band. And seven of these, says the Paris-headquartered supplier, are already in commercial service.

True, certification alone will probably not be enough to give operators sufficient confidence that different certified kit, from different vendors, will work together from the word go. However, it should make the IOT (interoperability testing) period quicker and more cost-efficient.

Backing up the WiMAX Forum certification progress at 3.5GHz, Alcatel-Lucent and US chip giant Intel announced at MWC 2009 its joint IOT programme, dubbed WiMAX Ensure, for embedded and non-embedded device on mobile WiMAX networks. The first target of the WiMAX Ensure programme is the 3.5GHz frequency band.

According to Intel figures, there are already 26 Centrino 2 processor-powered notebook computers with the embedded Intel WiMAX/wifi chipset. The US chip giant predicts 100 such devices by the end of 2009.

Most WiMAX suppliers, both at the infrastructure and chipset level, acknowledge the importance of IOT programmes – with multiple partners involved – as a way to boost operator confidence. This can increase the size of the market, provide greater economies of scale, and lower prices: a classic virtuous cycle.

And scale is something that WiMAX needs, sooner rather than later, to sharpen its competitive edge ahead of the commercial arrival of ‘4G’ competitor LTE. The good news is that the mega WiMAX projects that can potentially provide this scale are already underway in the US (Clearwire) and Japan (UQ Communications). And Yota, a WiMAX operator in Russia – which has plans to have nationwide mobile WiMAX coverage by 2011 – is by all accounts already aggressively rolling out Samsung 802.16e base stations in Moscow and St Petersburg. Buoyed from securing a 25 percent equity stake from state-owned Rostechnologii, which oversees more than 470 Russian enterprises, Yota says it is not affected by the credit crunch and has funds already in place to support its ambitious WiMAX plans.

That’s not to say they are no lingering question marks about the prospects for large-scale WiMAX expansion in the near term. It still remains to be seen, for example, how quickly Clearwire and UQ can roll out their respective WiMAX networks, although it will surely do neither operator any harm that they can count deep-pocketed Intel as an investor.

Even so, it continues to be a source of frustration that disputes in India between the government and the regulator surrounding the terms of WiMAX and 3G licensing have yet to be sorted out. With government elections due in either April or May this year, it seems reasonable to conclude that the WiMAX and 3G licences won’t be awarded until the end of this year at the earliest. That would shut off an enormous channel for WiMAX growth given India’s low broadband penetration of around four per cent in a country with over one billion people.

But there are still lots of growth opportunities for WiMAX during 2009. And if the larger WiMAX players can pick up momentum, it will encourage the smaller and more numerous players to follow.

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