Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Will WiMax ever become the mainstream?

Which technology has a better future – Wimax or 3G/LTE (Long Term Evolution)? Will the operators adopt WiMax as 4G solution? This has been a hotly debated subject on the internet/blogs and there are die-hard supporters of both the technologies. I would not like to comment on which is a better technology as this debate is very much like CDMA vs. GSM. Though the jury is yet to be out on which is the better technology of the two (CDMA or GSM) but the business issues like ecosystem development, open platforms, etc. have weighed in favor of GSM and this is evident from the world-wide market share of GSM. Similarly, proponents of WiMax may claim that WiMax is a better technology as compared to LTE or at least similar to LTE in terms of performance as both are OFDMA based. Agreed that LTE is completely a new installation over CDMA based 3G networks and the cost of new installation is similar for both WiMax and LTE. However, the fact of the matter is that the success of any technology is dependent on its ecosystem and the players who offer the technology.

WiMax is being supported by equipment manufacturers like Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and chip manufacturer Intel. WiMax is being propped as an alternative to LTE for high speed data networks by these companies. However, it is unlikely that any major operator across the world would migrate from 2G/3G to WiMax. It is clear that the majority of the operators would opt for the 2G/3G/LTE route as the LTE standards for 4G are much more developed than that of WiMax. Even the spectrum band for WiMax has not standardized and is currently available in 3 spectrum bands in different parts of the world. Moreover, with larger number of installations of the GSM networks, there are many more options for consumers for inter-operator roaming. Role of the open and developed eco-system is cannot be ignored in the success of any standard. None of the current major mobile handset and equipment manufacturers barring Motorola are enthusiastic about WiMax. There is no debate in my mind to the fate of WiMax. I believe WiMax as a technology is here to stay but as a support to the LTE or in the area of fixed broadband. It would be complementary to the LTE. The WiMax deployment could happen in the profitable way for the following applications:

Back-haul: WiMax could be used by 3G operators as back haul from cellular base stations to the radio controller instead of copper wire line T1 connections/microwave links/satellite

Last Mile Connectivity: WiMax could be used for fixed broadband access in residential areas where last mile connectivity is not available. Intel is likely to launch dual chips supporting both WiFi and WiMax which would be embedded in all future laptops. This would be a big push for fixed WiMax. Moreover, there are rumors that Intel is contemplating chips for camera that would allow the users to upload the photos directly from the digital camera using WiMax. All this would push fixed WiMax but the mobile WiMax is still out of the picture. The top mobile device vendors have no/limited handset models with WiMax chip and the landscape is unlikely to change anytime soon

Rural: WiMax is likely to be successful in the rural areas in emerging markets due to the vast geographical coverage each WiMax site can provide thus lower the cost of deployment. Fixed WiMax has its reach up to 30 miles radius from the base station though longer distances may result in drop of bit rates. The broadband connectivity will be a boon for tele-medicine, e-Governance and distance education

Back-end Connectivity: WiMax would provide connectivity to Wi-Fi spots

Complementary to 3G: In a few countries like India were the spectrum is scarce, all the carriers may not get the 3G spectrum. In such instances, the not so fortunate carriers may opt for WiMax. Moreover, it is possible that carriers offer a combination of 3G/WiMax to lower the costs. Urban areas could be on 3G and rural areas on WiMax. If this situation develops in many countries, the handset with dual chip (3G+WiMax) would benefit

To summarize, the winner is likely to be LTE purely due to the business issues of developed standards and eco-system rather than on strength of technology. WiMax may never become the mainstream or predominant technology but it would have its own space as a technology complementary to 3G/LTE. It is likely that in future, WiMax may converge with the LTE-TDD standards as evident from the quote of Alcatel-Lucent’s CEO, Ben Verwaayen – “Alcatel-Lucent intends to lead the long-awaited convergence of WiMax and LTE-TDD standards in the coming years, as we believe the market cannot afford to support two competing 4G technologies”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"the LTE standards for 4G are much more developed than that of WiMax" - wrong - LTE is nearly complete. 802.16e was complete in 2005.

"the spectrum band for WiMax has not standardized" - wrong - there are 2 primary bands being used: 2.5 (2.3 to 2.7) and 3.5 (3.3 to 3.8). LTE is being considered in so many different bands of new and existing spectrum.

"there are many more options for consumers for inter-operator roaming" - only if you have a multimode device with 2G/3G/LTE. You can do the same for WiMAX.

"Role of the open and developed eco-system" - WiMAX is much more open than LTE is.

"the winner is likely to be LTE purely due to the business issues of developed standards and eco-system rather than on strength of technology" - You got the winner right, but the reasons all wrong.