Can WiMax Go The Distance? - InformationWeek

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3/12/2008
07:45 PM
Sean Ginevan
Sean Ginevan
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Can WiMax Go The Distance?

Though LTE is a threat, tangible benefits make WiMax likely to stay in the running for the long haul.

NOT SO BLEAK

Commercial WiMax services have launched in the United States, though not from the players you might expect. TDS Telecom, a regional service provider, offers data and voice WiMax services in Madison, Wis., albeit in a fixed broadband configuration. Sprint Nextel met its WiMax connectivity service goals through employee-only "soft launches" in Washington, Baltimore, and Chicago. The company says it's fine-tuning the network and preparing for a commercial service, under the Xohm moniker, in select cities later this year, though it wouldn't comment on additional launch cities or discuss an updated timeline.

Clearwire also is looking to provide service this year and has been working on its own test network near Portland, Ore., conveniently close to Intel's headquarters. Intel employees have helped the fledgling wireless company optimize its services, according to John Storch, Clearwire's VP of network development. "Our performance tests with our WiMax beta trial in Portland have been showing very positive results. We're seeing throughput of 2 to 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream," Storch says. "Many Intel employees are using only our WiMax trial network, even when other mobile wireless networks are available, and some are even considering canceling their broadband service at home."

For enterprise IT, the uncertainty around which operator will launch what WiMax service, and when, isn't the only source of drama. There are also two incompatible WiMax variants--802.16-2004, sometimes called 802.16d or fixed WiMax, and 802.16-2005, also known as 802.16e or mobile WiMax. Our money is on 802.16e because it contains numerous enhancements that make it ideal for both point-to-point and mobile applications. Generally, when discussing service launches like Xohm, the technology in question is 802.16-2005.

For enterprises, the enhancements WiMax brings to the table boil down to increased speed and decreased latency. A Chicago demonstration by Motorola and Sprint delivered downstream throughput ranging from 2.4 Mbps to 3.2 Mbps, with upstream throughput from 1.4 to 1.5 Mbps.

Clearwire says its own performance tests have been strong as well, with downstream throughput at 5 Mbps and upstream of 1 to 2 Mbps. Sprint expects end users to see 2 to 4 Mbps on the downlink for Xohm, with upload speeds of 1 to 3 Mbps. As a point of comparison with existing 3G networks, our last round of EV-DO Rev A testing had an average download speed of 1.1 Mbps and an average upload rate of 511 Kbps. While these speeds are faster than current 3G networks, they don't beat planned upgrades to existing 3G systems, such as future iterations of HSPA. See results of our Clearwire testing in the story on p. 52.

Beyond just more speed, WiMax's IP-centric architecture, combined with quality of service, make it ideal for supporting advanced applications such as video. In fact, Intel's and Clearwire's demonstration at the recent Consumer Electronics Show showcased streaming video, including from special "WiMax cars" on a test network (see a video of a test drive below).

PRICEY CHIPS

The cost of WiMax chips is an area of uncertainty. While economies of scale could drive down prices, a lack of demand, particularly in the face of an uncertain service provider market, may initially keep WiMax costs high. And while royalty fees for WiMax chips were projected to be lower than 3G competitors, in part because of the wide variety of companies holding intellectual property, recent research from ABI indicates that WiMax royalties may not be any lower than competing 4G technologies.

Sprint's Barry West says WiMax chips should cost less than rival technologies, with prices more in line with Wi-Fi than cellular radio. That means WiMax technology could be integrated into a wide variety of devices, even those one doesn't consider mobile, such as stereos or appliances. In fact, this new device ecosystem has been a cornerstone of Sprint's marketing strategy: Sell WiMax-enabled devices in a variety of venues, bypassing the expensive (for the carriers) device subsidies found in American cellular markets. Pricing models would change, too, with a combination of daily, monthly, and prepaid plans available and, likely, discounts for users who carry multiple WiMax devices; for instance, a laptop and a portable music player could be on a shared plan.

A cellular modem could conceivably be built into any device, limited only by feasible battery life and antenna design. Infonetics expects WiMax to see annual global, industry-wide growth of 87% between 2006 and 2010 as more carriers embrace 4G technology. That's likely overly optimistic, but expansion anywhere in that ballpark is good news for equipment suppliers such as Ericsson, Intel, Nortel, and Samsung, all of which are banking on WiMax to fuel sales growth.

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