It's happening already. Not only does it look like HSPDA is going to eat WiMax's lunch in Asia according to a report in today, but we've had our first 3G enabled laptop into the Reviews labs. When will we see any WiMax product? Your guess is as good as mine, and I'm guessing 2008.
I hold no particular brief for either technology. I like HSPDA because I've seen it work, and I like WiMax because it seems a sound, cost-effective way to deploy broadband where broadband is difficult to deploy. I think it's a shame that WiMax has been oversold for other tasks, and that this will result in problems for it in the near future that it really doesn't deserve to have.
What will be upsetting is if WiMax or its descendants are such a commercial failure that they lose developmental inertia. We're going to need it badly if certain moves in the US are successful, and if they then spread further abroad.
Over there, where some of the political machinations of the IT industry are terrible to behold, some of the big ISPs are lobbying to be allowed to preferentially drop traffic they don't approve of. We've already seen Verizon and friends saying "Why should we have to pay to carry Google's traffic?", a stance that merrily ignores the fact that everyone who connects to the Internet pays for their bandwidth already; now we've had the US government preparing to allow the ISPs to act on such ideas.
If unchecked, this will lead to a rapid dismantling of all the things that made the Internet work and a return to the old days of closed networks with high costs of entry. Why shoud Verizon carry Google's traffic if it thinks it can force its subscribers to use its own search engine? And how will search engines work if they can't search across the entire Internet? Hey, who cares if an ISP's customers are restricted to finding stuff hosted by that ISP? More revenues for that ISP, right?
Let nobody imagine that the big telcos are too smart to let that happen. Stupidity and greed are still not endangered species at the highest levels of corporate America. And if it does, is that it? Are we lost? Back in the clammy embrace of old-school telcos?
Not if we can deploy more networks that don't need massive infrastructures — and that means cheap, powerful, unrestricted mesh systems — exactly the sort of thing that WiMax and its fellows are designed to become. The technology's there, and the regulators — at least in Europe — are moving towards the opinion that less regulation is better, meaning we'll be able to deploy the stuff we think we need, not that someone else has decided for us.
Let's hope that if the worst comes to the worst, we've got the tools to fight back. WiMax, we'll need you. Don't lose the early fights.