Adeus WiMAX: lessons from the fall

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2014-10-10

Goodbye WiMAX, but Wi-Fi keeps rolling along. Both technologies were fostered and strongly supported through their birth pangs by Intel Corp, which produced chipsets and platforms supporting both standards, and it is ironic that while WiMAX is terminally ill Wi-Fi is in good health and destined for ever-greater things.

To understand why one fizzled out and the other is still rocketing we need to look at some of the differences between Wi-Fi and WiMAX. And also what differentiates WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) from successful 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project) mobile broadband technologies such as HSPA and LTE.

• Spectrum: Wi-Fi uses the free unlicensed spectrum bands at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, thus removing a major upfront cost from operators’ capex. WiMAX services are mainly in paid-for, licensed spectrum bands – primarily 3.5 GHz but also 2.5 GHz. While this spectrum was relatively inexpensive, particularly in the higher band, it still had to be paid for. WiMAX is also generally deployed in a single, high-frequency band. But the competing cellular mobile broadband operators look to their spectrum holdings for a combination of widespread rural coverage and the ability to deal with high demand in urban areas (sub-1 GHz bands like 700 and 800MHz for coverage and higher bands, mainly 2.5 GHz, for capacity, with 1800 MHz right in the middle).

• Business model: Wi-Fi leverages other forms of connectivity (DSL, fiber-optic cable, mobile broadband) to transmit data in a convenient way to and from devices in close proximity to a simple plug-and-play Wi-Fi router or public access point; WiMAX required substantial capex investments on network roll out

• Nomadic X Mobile: Both Wi-Fi and WiMAX are nomadic technologies (patchy not continuous coverage), with WiMAX from the outset competing against fully-mobile HSPA and LTE cellular networks, and Wi-Fi not in competition with mobile operators

• Mobile operators influence: With a handful of notable exceptions, WiMAX was the technology-of-choice for small, less- capitalized operators who were competing against cash-rich cellular operators. In addition the WiMAX operators were often confined to a handful of cities or regions, while their MNO rivals were providing nationwide service

The mobile broadband technologies developed at 3GPP attracted, and continue to attract, overwhelming mobile-operator support and hence multi-vendor support. The mobile operators are the most powerful force in world telecoms (annual revenues of approximately US$1 trillion) and where they lead economies of scale force vendors to follow.

Today, Wi-Fi is in most homes and offices, hotspots are everywhere, and it is the new darling of telecoms operators looking into offloading mobile data, but WiMAX networks are being turned off or converted to TD-LTE.

Intel’s big success with WiMAX, though, was to prompt acceleration in LTE development. The WiMAX promise of faster data speeds forced the pace of 4G LTE adoption, and it became the most-quickly-adopted telecoms technology in history.

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