Will mobile WiMax transform wireless working?

Summary:The long-range, high-bandwidth wireless technology is on its way, but how it will be adopted is still unclear

...high density of stations required to make the network operate effectively. As a result, any initial work would probably focus on provisioning suburban areas, airports and the like, although Bubley predicts that the chances of this taking place much before 2010 is "nearly zero".

Another challenge in terms of corporate adoption, meanwhile, is that WiMax tends not to work indoors as well as rival technologies such as Wi-Fi, because its radio waves are at higher frequency and so tend to be absorbed by walls, people and the like more easily.

"There may be a way of using pico and femtocells to reduce this, but this approach is probably more suitable for consumers. Enterprises would have to integrate the cells with their existing local area networks and network operators aren't likely to want an extra box at the end of their Lan," Bubley says.

Another issue that is likely to inhibit business uptake is that there is no uniform globally licensed spectrum for WiMax, whereas there is one for 3G networks. This means that roaming either now or in the future will be impossible, unless a workaround such as a (probably expensive) multi-mode device is found.

Such a scenario is already evidenced by the fact that, although UK operators may go for the 2.6GHz frequency band next year, the US has already opted for 2.5GHz today, and some countries in Asia such as Indian and Vietnam are expected to plump for 3.3GHz in the future.

Finding a market
Ian Fogg, a research director at Jupiter Research, is not convinced there is an obvious usage model for WiMax at the moment. Instead he believes that it is "essentially a technology looking for a market". WiMax, he says, has been pitched variously by vendors over the past few years as a rival to fixed broadband technologies such as cable and DSL, an alternative to Wi-Fi public hotspots, and a high-bandwidth backhaul for internet or cellular phone traffic from remote areas to an internet or T1/E1 data network backbone.

"Each of these markets has different rivals so it's quite hard to talk about a WiMax market as such. You can talk about markets for different types of applications and ways of meeting those needs — and one of those might be WiMax — but really it's just an alternative pipe," Fogg explains.

The worry for proponents, however, is that this alternative pipe is already several years behind rival offerings in terms of both maturity and adoption, which means that when and if it materialises, it will need to prove itself superior by various orders of magnitude in order to catch up.

Today, however, the technology is not yet available in any volume, most WiMax operators are currently niche and, while the technology is optimised for data rather than voice, much depends on how networks will eventually be built. In Fogg's view: "Until WiMax is offered in competition with 3G or 4G, you can't make performance comparisons because it's all very hypothetical. What you can say, however, is that it's coming to market late, it has poor economies of scale and it's available in some countries but not all. So it's going to be challenging for operators to compete with 3G or 4G and the best they can hope for is that they find a niche for it."

Into the medium-term, at least, WiMax may offer more potential usage cases for data-focused devices such as laptops and PDAs in the traditional Wi-Fi domain. Over time, Bubley perceives that the technology may increasingly be deployed in specialised terminals for outdoor workers, the emergency services or even in the vehicles of courier and parcel delivery companies such as DHL.

But Bamforth believes that it could be used even more widely. "I can see it emerging as a mechanism for connecting wireless laptops and other data devices at speeds that are higher than current Wi-Fi networks and over ranges that are more comparable with cellular," he says. "The advantages of WiMax are that it would mean less impact in terms of street furniture such as antennae and it could lead to the creation of not so much hotspots, as hot zones."

Nonetheless, unlike the claims being made three years ago, Bamforth thinks it unlikely that such services would be offered for free, as operators will need to make a return on their investment. He also believes that uptake will depend on the applications that are "running on the back of it", which will, in turn, dictate funding models.

"The average IT manager will use mobile WiMax alongside their 3G cards and it will creep in as a way to extend mobile networks for travelling users. Whether it will be used as a way to deliver wireless campuses is somewhat more unclear, but in the end this all boils down, not so much to the technology, but to commercial models, and it's still just too early to say how it will pan out," Bamforth concludes.

Topics: Tech Industry

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.