Does WiMAX have a future?

In terms of 4G technology, WiMAX was up and running before LTE got a look in, but it has rapidly fallen from favour as the carrier market opts for its rival. Ian Grant wonders whether WiMAX technology can survive

Does WiMAX have a future?

Can the world have changed its mind on WiMAX in just two years? The unequivocal answer is yes. At least half a million base stations will be installed or upgraded for TD-LTE by the end of 2016, predicts market researcher ABI Research.

‘It was only two years ago that nearly every WiMAX operator, including operators with unpaired TDD frequency spectrum, were planning to deploy WiMAX 2,’ said ABI’s practice director for mobile networks Aditya Kaul. ‘Today, almost all of them are deploying TD-LTE instead.’

What happened? Simply, China Mobile, with 600 million subscribers, decided that TD-LTE is the way for it go. Any operator with 10% of the world’s mobile subscribers, and likely to get more, is an attractive prospect for equipment vendors, especially as the number of base stations or ‘points of presence’ (PoP) required is likely to run into the tens of millions.

In fact, it persuaded Alvarion, a key WiMAX vendor, to hedge its bets, and even to hint that it is giving up on WiMAX.

During a recent phone conference, Alvarion CEO Eran Gorev didn’t mention WiMAX, noting only that the company was concentrating on its most profitable opportunities, which analysts took to mean LTE. 

Earlier, Gorev had told Wireless Week: ‘It takes time for an industry, including chipset manufacturers and device makers, to proceed with their development plans to a point where device pricing makes sense.

We still expect it will take some time for the LTE ecosystem to mature, even with China Mobile announcing TD-LTE is the direction they’re taking.’

But once a rock as big as China Mobile starts moving, it gathers momentum very quickly. A Goldman Sachs report last June said TD-LTE services launched by China Mobile, Bharti (India), and Japan’s Softbank will cover nearly 2.7 billion people – 39% of the world’s population – by late 2012 or 2013.

Where does that leave WiMAX? Evolving towards LTE-Advanced, according to Adam Kurianski, CEO of Polish mobile operator Aero2, which is why Aero2 opted for a TD-LTE network in the 1800MHz band.

But the number of WiMAX subscribers hit 20 million in mid-2011, according to the WiMAX Forum, which leads the cheers for the technology. It reported that Japan’s UQ Communications doubled its subscriber base to more than one million in June, and a new Malaysian WiMAX operator, YTL, netted over 300,000 subscribers between November 2010 and June 2011.

However, WiMAX’s future as a mobile technology contender was written in August 2011, when Clearwire, the only US operator based on WiMAX, announced that it was going to evolve its network towards LTE Advanced. ‘This is the future of mobile broadband,’ John Saw, Clearwire’s CTO, said at the time.

The next month, Aviat Networks, another key WiMAX vendor, sold its loss-making WiMAX operation to EION in Canada, just two years after it paid $12m to acquire the business.

What’s next for the technology? Most equipment vendors are offering dual WiMAX/LTE kit to wean operators off WiMAX. Some companies will develop niche applications where the need for very high data rates is not paramount, such as M2M. And operators who can’t afford licensed spectrum will take advantage of the free airwaves in the 2.5GHz band.

Life might not be exciting, but with some creativity, WiMAX might just make a comfortable living away from the spotlight.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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