Even if you don't work in wireless, you've heard a lot about WiMAX. Perhaps the most important message from the marketing types is that the technology, often called "Wi-Fi on steroids," eventually will replace Wi-Fi itself, and perhaps become the key mobile broadband connection for most users during the next few years. Let's drop the steroids talk; it's time for a reality check.
First, WiMAX is great technology-but here I'm talking about the first WiMAX, based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard and soon to be codified by the WiMAX Forum. This is the standardization of fixed broadband wireless, a significant but not huge market and one that remains important nonetheless. It's hard to imagine WiMAX won't succeed in becoming the dominant force here. The lower prices typical of standardized products are enough to push WiMAX to the front of what has always been a fragmented but vital market.
But most people think of WiMAX as a mobile technology, and this isn't the case yet. Mobile WiMAX depends on completing the 802.16e process, now under way but unlikely to be finished (especially by the WiMAX Forum) before late 2006.
At that point, however, the installed base of Wi-Fi will be huge. Can we really imagine mobile WiMAX competing against Wi-Fi in the unlicensed bands? Doubtful at best. But suppose we persuade carriers and operators to devote some of their precious licensed spectrum to WiMAX? We should see more range and capacity than Wi-Fi, basestation by basestation. But will carriers really take the WiMAX plunge? Will they compete against their own 3G and other emerging 4G services? This is where all that hype breaks down.
We'll see hybrid Wi-Fi/WiMAX basestations/access points, with user access via Wi-Fi and backhaul via WiMAX. We'll certainly see some mobile WiMAX by itself, but I think most mobile broadband users will use combined 3G/Wi-Fi subscriber units at least through the end of the decade. Beyond that, perhaps a gradual movement to mobile WiMAX, maybe even incorporating VoIP. The great truth in wireless-and maybe all of technology-is that things always take longer than they should. In the meantime, even though "MAX" sounds better than "Fi," WLAN market growth will remain more than robust.
Craig Mathias is principal of Farpoint Group (Ashland, Mass.).