Making Sense of WiMAX

The future of WiMAX is still up in the air. Certifed product is not expected until the first half of 2005, and mass-produced chipsets are not going to be available to vendors until next summer. So, the question is whether end users and service providers will wait for a wireless technology when they are making decisions today. Experts say yes. WiMAX is the standard of the future, but not before 2006.

With the word WiMAX bandied about like so many data packets, most agents likely are familiar with the emerging technology. For those needing a refresher, WiMAX is the term coined for the 802.16 wireless metropolitan-area network standard. It is being designed for a range of up to 31 miles; the intent is to make broadband network access widely available without the expense of stringing wires or the distance limitations imposed by DSL.

WiMAX is evolving into two standards, according to research firm Parks Associates. Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, a senior analyst, says it is essential to distinguish between the two flavors of WiMAX IEEE 802.16REVd and IEEE 802.16e because they appeal to different market segments. 802.16REVd is a fixed wireless last-mile technology that uses unlicensed spectrum while 802.16e is for mobile applications. Calling the former fixed WiMAX, and the latter nomadic WiMAX, may help lessen the problem,” he says.  

In a report released earlier this year, Untethering Broadband: WiMAX, 802.20, and Others, Parks Associates notes 802.16REVd, in its first stage of outdoor installation, should reduce costs. “Major service providers are unlikely to be intrigued until 802.16REVd reaches the second stage of indoor installation with plug-and-play CPEs,” Cai explains. “Believe it or not, 802.16e is positioned to compete against mobile broadband wireless technologies such as cellular, the proposed 802.20 and proprietary technologies.”

And therein lies the challenge, says The Yankee Group in its recent study, Demystifying Next-Generation Broadband Wireless and the Role of WiMAX. What this means to agents is there are a number of mind-boggling acronyms to decipher and translate to end users. Even more, behind the acronyms lie technologies from fixed or mobile origins that differ in their degrees of mobility, performance and availability, Yankee Group says. The still-conceptual WiMAX already is going head-to-head with technologies that are pushing mobile carriers to decide which broadband choice to offer.

“Currently, flash-OFDM and TDD-WCDMA are commercially available, which gives them an advantage over 802.16e, says Roberta Wiggins, a Yankee Group Wireless/Mobile United States research fellow. However, although alternative technologies such as WiMAX may offer performance improvements over the mainstream options, they lack economies of scale and may have supply-chain challenges, particularly for mass-market devices.”

For ABI Research, the promise of WiMAX is that it will bring broadband to consumers who do not and who likely still will not, in 2006 have access to cable or DSL. Senior Analyst Phil Solis says 802.16e will be “a great mobile solution” when devices start appearing next year, but it will still have to carve out its place next to established 3G infrastructures.

Yankee Groups Wiggins says the increasing range of broadband options causes end-user confusion, and calls on industry professionals to help make sense of the onslaught of technologies. Users are already confused by a host of arcane acronyms thrown at them from wireless and wireline carriers, Wiggins says. Adoption rates depend on how vendors and service providers choose to position the new technologies in the marketplace.

While WiMAX is designed to be a carrier-class technology, in its pre-certified versions it is being purchased by channel partners for installation in larger customer venues, such as campuses, for broadband access.

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