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WiMax’ rocky road

WiMax is having a rough life — and this week epitomizes that.

The wireless protocol for broadband access — known in long form as Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access — started off the week on a high note. On Monday, six tech heavy hitters, including Cisco Systems, Samsung Electronics, Alcatel-Lucent, Intel, Sprint and Clearwire formed the Open Patent Alliance.

The coalition aims to stabilize the cost of access to patented WiMax technology. That would make it less expensive to develop technology across networks and devices, keeping it cheap enough to bring to market.

But even that good news had its dark cloud since a couple of major WiMax-committed players, namely Motorola and Qualcomm, have thus far refused to sign on and won’t commit to doing so in the near future.

In addition, there is no guarantee that patent alliances work to further a technology.

“It only takes one crazy guy who wants to sue everybody,” said Farpoint Group founder Craig Mathias. Then the six companies in the alliance won’t be able to do much about intellectual property rights barring progress.

But more discouraging for WiMax supporters, Nortel announced this week it would move its long-term 4G R&D focus toward a competing standard, Long Term Evolution (LTE). Nortel is keeping its bases covered by continuing a smaller focus on WiMax development in conjunction with Israeli company Alvarion. Previously Nortel had all its eggs in the WiMax basket.

Just six months ago, WiMax seemed a no-lose proposition. Sprint had invested heavily in building out a nationwide network and technology development was way ahead of LTE. AT&T and Verizon are both developing LTE networks. Since then, Sprint ran into major financial troubles, giving the technology a setback. This past May, Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Intel, Google, Bright House Networks and Clearwire formed an alliance to build out a massive WiMax network. The alliance will be called Clearwire Corp.

Clearwire Corp. is aiming to complete that network by 2010, which is when AT&T and Verizon are expected to be ready to launch LTE services.

The race is on. It’s not likely though that the road will get any smoother for WiMax — or the companies behind the technology — along the way.

Here’s a great recap of the Sprint WiMax history.

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