WiMax continues to play only a small role in Asia-Pacific's overall telecommunications landscape due to fierce competition and low consumer demand, which has led to many service providers investing in long-term evolution (LTE) networks for future growth instead. It should remain an "important weapon" in any operator's arsenal, though, says one observer.
According to Steve Lo, Asia-Pacific telecommunications sector leader at Ernst & Young, many Asia-Pacific markets have issued frequency spectrum licenses for WiMax. However, many service providers have either gained only limited adoption or have not rolled out services due to fierce competition in the market, he noted.
"As such, overall market share for WiMax is small in Asia-Pacific, except for a couple of deployments in the South Asia," he said. Pakistan, for one, has shown promise for providers with 29 percent of broadband users utilizing the wireless technology in 2011, he noted, while one of Bangladesh's WiMax operators have reached 200,000 subscribers.
Navin Vohra, vice president of wireless sales for Asia-Pacific at CommScope, added that the state of WiMax remains largely unchanged from 3 years ago. "The technology had garnered much interest in the early days but it is a case of too little, too late," he said, adding that WiMax has to compete with GSM 3G technology, which many operators are investing in as an upgrade of 2G.
The executive also pointed out that technical limitations to WiMax such as line-of-sight transmission require extensive planning in metropolitan areas, driving up additional rollout costs. This is why most countries look on WiMax mainly as a supplementary network to ease congestion. This approach is "futile" though as WiMax-enabled devices never took off, Vohra said.
WiMax operators switching to LTE
Even in countries where WiMax is implemented, the technology is slowly taking a back seat as operators have plans to implement LTE (long-term evolution) or have already commercialized LTE offerings, both executives stated.
Lo noted that in the case of South Korea, which was one of the early adopters of WiMax with its government-backed version called WiBro launched in 2006, the technology did not live to expectations.
Korea Telecom and SK Telecom still offer WiBro as part of its wireless broadband offerings, but it used largely as a complementary technology to 3G, he noted. All Korean operators have also commercially launched their LTE networks since mid-2011, he added.
Besides South Korea, Lo identified Taiwan and Malaysia as markets with active development of WiMax. However, even in these markets, the technology plays only a bit part and operators are looking to adopt LTE.
"Taiwan is one of the most vibrant WiMax markets thanks to the support from the government," he elaborated. "However, the sluggish adoption of around 131,000 WiMax subscribers by Nov. 2011 has prompted the six WiMax licensees to rethink the business case and is driving market consolidation."
Vohra added that Taiwan's biggest WiMax operator, Global One, has plans to improve its coverage but the other WiMax operators are in discussion to attempt a merger into one company. "While there are no clear announcements to change their networks to LTE, the general consensus is that they will eventually turn their networks into LTE in the near future," he said.
In Malaysia, where some of the biggest WiMax providers operate, Lo noted that the technology has not posed a significant threat to the other mobile operators in the market due to limited network coverage and slow uptake. Similar to carriers in Taiwan, most Malaysian WiMax operators have indicated plans to aggressively pursue LTE once it is viable to do so, he added.
The biggest of the four WiMax providers in Malaysia, Packet One Networks, has already conducted LTE trials with the setting up of a TD-LTE Technology Experience Centre and Test Lab and aims to launch its commercial LTE network after regulatory approval, the Ernst & Young executive said.
He said WiMax's lack of successful in Asia-Pacific is similar to the trends in the rest of the world. "[WiMax] has missed the window of opportunity to become a mainstream broadband wireless technology as the industry is moving toward accepting LTE as the 4G network of choice."
Still an "important weapon"
Despite its diminishing popularity, though, Vohra said WiMax can still play a part in the telecommunications sector.
"We have seen WiMax being utilized as a backhaul technology, working seamlessly with 3G or LTE networks. As such, we should not think of WiMax and LTE as 'either or' alternatives," he explained.
The CommScope executive added that WiMax's real advantage comes from its ability to provide high bandwidth for applications such as video surveillance or data synchronization. "WiMax may not be prominent in the eyes of the consumer with WiMax-enabled devices, but the technology remains an important weapon in an operators' arsenal," he surmised.
One analyst had earlier stated that the wireless technology will survive as a "niche" technology. Chris Kissel, mobile Internet analyst at In-Stat pointed out last June that WiMax may find roots in under-developed markets such as Latin America or Africa, where the technology could still be built in areas with little or no cellular service.