INTERVIEW: With the WiMAX Forum Global Congress about to kick off in Amsterdam, spoke to Mike Roberts, principle analyst with Informa, about the state of the emerging wireless technology.

While the appeal of WiMAX for users has always been clear it hasn’t made the 4G technology’s path to becoming a widely adopted wireless standard any smoother.

However, despite setbacks and delays in networks being rolled out, WiMAX does appear to finally be gaining momentum.

On Tuesday, thousands of delegates will be attending the opening of this year’s two-day WiMAX Forum Global Congress in Amsterdam.

Mike Roberts, principle analyst with Informa, is chairing sessions at the conference.

He said he is "cautiously optimistic" about WiMAX, which is taking a small but increasingly respectable share of the mobile broadband market.

"It’s a newcomer and is not going to take over the market overnight," he said. "Given its strengths we see it taking a very small market share, but that’s growing and will continue to do so."

Roberts told that one of the themes in Amsterdam will be that WiMAX should focus on its strengths.

"While that may appear obvious, it still holds true," he said.

What are those strengths? Well, these are principally fast data rates and low latency.

Broadband Data

As a result, Roberts said WiMAX should initially be concentrating on the broadband data segment since it offers users a better user experience than other technologies.

"It is the latest and greatest technologies bundled together. That’s its great advantage," he said.

There are also disadvantages to the technology, especially when compared to 3G-based systems such as HSPA and EVDO. But Roberts said these largely come down to coverage.

"They (3G) are established traditional systems, so they are everywhere. WiMAX does not have that in any countries, but that is a function of maturity."

Juniper Research recently issued a report noting that growth in WiMAX networks has been slower than anticipated.

But it forecast that revenue from WiMAX 802.16e broadband subscribers will exceed USD $15 billion globally by 2014.

To put that in perspective, Verizon reported wireless revenue of USD $15.1 billion for the first quarter of this year.

The report notes that WiMAX will likely be a replacement technology for low-end DSL service and in developing countries where wired access doesn’t make economic sense.

Developing Nations Take To WiMAX

A driving force in these markets is Intel, which expects to make WiMAX accessible to 120 million people in 2010, with global rollouts planned or already happening in nations such as Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and India.

Roberts said WiMAX had strong appeal in these countries because of their low broadband penetration.

He said coverage is often not very good because of the cost of creating networks.

"But everyone wants broadband these days, regardless of where they are, and the obvious way to roll it out is with wireless technology," he said.

"WiMAX and other mobile broadband technologies have a great opportunity to meet that demand and are going after that opportunity."

In the US, the WiMAX market is slowly growing, thanks chiefly to WiMAX service provider Clearwire.

It is, finally, rolling out its WiMAX network – it added 25,000 new subscriptions in the first quarter of 2009, and users in Portland, Ore., where the service launched in January, are using twice the bandwidth than those in Clearwire’s Pre-WiMAX markets.

The company has the aim of providing a pervasive mobile broadband service nationwide.

But despite USD $3 billion in recent additional funding, the current economic climate has caused delays in the rollout.

That said, as PC makers and others in the technology industry infiltrate the wireless market, the more open WiMAX technology is likely to gain more ground.

Clearwire CEO William Morrow, recently spoke about the capacity and openness of the WiMAX network.

He pointed out that it offered a way for customers to get streaming video or other applications that carriers are currently leery of.

Roberts said Clearwire is one of the first really major WiMAX deployments and the faster it deployed, the better it was for the technology.

"The rollout has been delayed but now its going ahead the take up in some markets is very good," he said. "That is very good for WiMAX."

Clearwire is looking to target its ultra high-speed service at "road warriors" and others looking to get the most out of their netbooks, smartphones and laptops. It also appeals to heavy broadband users on a local level.

Clearwire argues that eventually, the economies of scale and interest level will be convincing enough for consumer electronics makers to embed WiMAX into a range of smart devices.

To improve the road warrior proposition in the absence of widespread deployment, Clearwire plans to introduce a dual-mode modem this summer that can connect to Sprint’s 3G network as well as to the Clear network.

It says that, while there are no embedded devices on the market right now, it expects there to be nearly 100 by the end of the year.

Roberts said that WiMAX is very strong in the portable segment – USB modems and notebooks – and is gaining momentum elsewhere.

He said this is in part because Intel is one of the technology’s major backers and it held a lot of sway in the market.

HTC T8290 – HTC’s First WiMAX Device

"A lot of the 100 devices will be in that category," he said. "Where WiMAX still has a lot of work to do is in the mobile device category, although a lot of WiMAX people would say that’s less important to them."

If WiMAX achieves its goal of having 100 devices by the end of 2009, then that is quite good progress for an emerging technology, according to Roberts.

But he said it still paled in comparison to the 1000s of mobile devices available to the encumbent technologies, which were also able to offer them at very competitive price points.

"But WiMAX offers a lightly better user experience for some applications and they will have to differentiate on that basis," he said.

Play to Strength

While WiMAX is strong in the portable segments, true, "full-blown" mobility will be harder and more expensive to achieve, according to Roberts.

"You can argue the extent to which some WiMax networks need to go there," he said. "Most will be based on mobile WiMAX but do not need a full-blown mobile service.

"It could be more for people on notebooks rather than talking on the phone – that’s WiMAX’s real core strength and the obvious place to start.

"If it tries to go against straight mobility, then it will come up against very intense competition."

Also in the US, Sprint rolled out a pilot WiMAX program in Baltimore last year. The network delivers average download speeds of two to four megabits per second, half the rate of cable Internet but several times faster than the 3G mobile service used by many of today’s smartphones, according to Sprint’s tests.

The company plans to introduce WiMAX in 10 American cities this year and five more in 2010.

Since few mobile devices have WiMAX chips in them, Sprint’s plan requires a proprietary antenna that plugs into laptops, similar to the early Wi-Fi cards that have since been built into computers.

Growth Gets Noticed

The flip side to WiMAX’s expanding network is that competing technologies take notice of the progress.

So carriers like Verizon Wireless have speeded up their next generation network plans (in this case LTE).

Ericsson and TeliaSonera have just flipped the switch on the world’s first commercial LTE cell site in Stockholm, Sweden.

The site will be part of a full-scale deployment that’s scheduled for next year.

AT&T has also just announced it is to accelerate the ramp up of LTE, a move which places it in a head-to-head competition with Verizon Wireless.

The latter is already racing to install its LTE wireless infrastructure.

"Success does not go unnoticed," said Roberts. "The LTE crowd has seen WiMAX coming to market and they have accelerated their plans in response.

"I may be being a little cynical, but in Ericsson’s case they have turned on the base station although no-one can use it as there are no devices available.

"But it is a step towards commercialising LTE."

Despite this, he is optimistic about the future prospects for WiMAX: "If you look at WiMAX in isolation there are a lot of very positive signs.

"If you look at it in broad terms, there are also positive signs. But there is competition and WiMAX will have to compete with the incumbents."

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