When Intel starts pushing something, it makes a difference in the market. This will be the case in 2008 with WiMax technology, a next-generation wireless specification that steps outside the bounds of Wi-Fi to offer broadband access across cities or neighborhoods. But it will take several years for deeper adoption.
There are several factors that make WiMax (which stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) compelling as a broadband wireless option. People are usually most intrigued by WiMax's promise of higher throughput across a wider coverage area per access device than Wi-Fi, at a lower price point than today's 2.5G or 3G cellular data services. But it's important to note that WiMax technology, which got its start with the 802.16 standard from IEEE, promises to serve applications in both fixed and mobile modes. In the fixed form, the technology is seen as a replacement for some wireline services. In the mobile sense, WiMax could be used with your mobile phone or handheld device to receive updates on the go as you move from city to city. Another bonus: It doesn't require line-of-sight clearance to work.
"I do believe at some point we're all going to take high-speed connectivity for granted, no matter where we are, at least for any metropolitan [or] suburban environment," said David Hall, senior vice president and chief technology officer for CompuCom Systems Inc., a national integrator with headquarters in Dallas. "How it is supplied will not so much be a concern of the individual or the business."
Granted, WiMax adoption is limited today, but industry research indicates a big change on the horizon. Infonetics Research, for instance, recently reported that revenue for fixed and mobile WiMax equipment rose 6% for the third quarter of 2007 to $206 million, but the firm predicts revenue for the sector of $5.6 billion by 2010. And network technology research firm Dell'Oro Group projects that mobile WiMax will account for less than 10% of the mobile data infrastructure by 2011, even though adoption will explode at a compounded annual rate of 50% during that timeframe. That means there will definitely be an uphill battle for any value-added reseller (VAR) or IT service provider hoping to sell customers on a solution that includes a WiMax element.
It may be tough for IT service providers to define a unique business proposition that involves WiMax technology because many networks will be built by cities and other forms of local government, said Dave Casey, CEO of Westron Communications, a networking VAR in Dallas. That means any solution built on top of this infrastructure will essentially need to ask for some form of right of way. "There are other methods of communication that aren't as robust, but they work and there is less hassle," he said.
Forrester Research Inc. reports that only 6% of mobile technology and services decision makers in North America and Europe said their companies actually use any kind of WiMax equipment, compared with approximately 55% of companies that have adopted Wi-Fi in-house. However, almost 40% of the respondents to Forrester's regular mobility research acknowledged that they are interested in adopting WiMax or a similar technology. That's because it has potential both as an alternative to installing individual wireless LANs, which have limited range and aren't an ideal option for outdoor usage scenarios, and for solving backhaul needs -- for example, for bridging distributed sites on a corporate campus. As far as access speeds go, the WiMax Forum, which is responsible for the evolving standard, says users can expect downstream speeds from 1 to 5 Mbps, depending on the service as well as factors such as distance to the base station. Wi-Fi can rival these speeds, but over a much shorter distance.
With those attributes, WiMax technology is expected to benefit from the release this year of an embedded laptop platform by Intel. Many analysts believe the platform will trigger evaluations and adoption of the technology, which can pick up where Wi-Fi leaves off for road warriors traveling outside of areas not well-covered by cellular data services offered by either national or regional wireless carriers.
"The trigger will be about what Intel does and when it does it," said Gerry Purdy, chief analyst for mobile and wireless at Frost & Sullivan in Palo Alto, Calif.
Extending its innovations with the Centrino notebook design platform, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. has created an integrated Wi-Fi/WiMax module that combines support for both technologies. The module, code-named Echo Peak, is slated to be available in certain notebooks sometime this year.
"The big WiMax proposition is the ability to contain costs," Purdy noted. "But this is a long-term proposition."
There are already WiMax cards available today, notably from players such as Clearwire Corp., a broadband wireless company in Kirkland, Wash., founded by industry pioneer Craig McCaw and one of the biggest service providers to watch in the evolving WiMax marketplace. Clearwire, which has financial backing from Intel, has signaled its intentions to build out mobile WiMax infrastructure in select regions. Its deal with Sprint Nextel to work on a national network fell apart last November.
For its part, Sprint has committed to using WiMax for its fourth-generation nationwide broadband network with a goal of reaching 100 million people in the United States by the end of this year. Its WiMax offering is called Xohm. In its camp are notables including Motorola, Nokia, Intel and Samsung, which will drive the development of various mobile devices that can ride on the service. Samsung has already begun shipping devices that work with the Korean version of WiMax, called Wibro, and it began demonstrating some of those devices for WiMax in the U.S. earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Watch this space
WiMax technology is especially compelling for rural areas that aren't well-served by broadband wireless, according to Brian Gregory, president of Network Innovations Inc., a VAR in Olathe, Kan. Today, some of his customers are forced to pay $1,500 for an Internet T1 connection, simply because there is no other option.
"EV-DO just disappears outside the city," Gregory said. "What I'm hoping is that the cellular phone carriers jump on it and start using WiMax for cellular service."
WiMax also presents an efficient alternative for multiunit dwellings, because it takes fewer access points to cover more space than Wi-Fi, said Sally Cohen, an analyst with Forrester. "WiMax will also improve on the quality of access because it doesn't deteriorate as quickly over distance," Cohen said. She believes that notebooks will be the first natural devices to ride on WiMax networks, although consumer gaming systems, ultramobile PCs and digital cameras might logically use WiMax in the future.
VARs that aren't convinced about WiMax's appeal at the client device level might do well to consider it as a backhaul option for linking their customers' corporate campus sites and other solutions. Players to consider include Adtran, BridgeWave Communications, Harris Stratex Networks, Motorola, Proxim Wireless and RAD Data Communications. It's also worth noting that mighty network infrastructure equipment company Cisco Systems acquired mobile WiMax technology player Navini Networks just last month, signaling its own intention to hedge its bets from an infrastructure standpoint.
About the author
Heather Clancy is a business journalist and a consultant on strategic channel communications for SWOT Management Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.