Beyond mobile broadband, WiMAX is about blowing up the wireless business model

Beyond mobile broadband, WiMAX is about blowing up the wireless business model

Summary: While the U.S. launch of WiMAX marks the debut of fast wireless Internet, the overall implications of this technology are much broader. See how this could shake up the cellular world and usher in a new breed of software, devices, and business applications.

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On Wednesday in Baltimore at the official launch of America's first mobile WiMAX network, Sprint CTO Barry West said that if this was only about launching a new type of network with faster performance then it would be significant. However, it is abundantly clear that for West, Sprint, and their band of high-profile WiMAX partners, this is about a lot more than just a faster mobile network.

What is it about? What's the subtext? Here's my interpretation:

  • It is about unleashing a new generation of applications and devices with broadband connectivity.
  • It is about changing the balance of power in the cellular industry.
  • It is about bringing wireless broadband to the masses by making it less expensive and more open.
  • It is about turning the U.S. from a laggard into a leader in the mobile world.
  • It is about a bunch of underdogs who are trying to leapfrog a set of powerful, entrenched leaders.

Sprint's Barry West celebrated the launch of WiMAX by ceremonially cutting Ethernet cables, even though it's the cellular companies Sprint is really going after with Xohm. Photo by Jason Hiner

Is this really the beginning of WiMAX?

I've seen a number of consumers in the U.S. respond to news of the official U.S WiMAX launch in Baltimore by saying. "This isn't new. My town has had WiMAX for a couple years." What's going on here is that several smaller cities in the U.S. already have a version of WiMAX called "Fixed WiMAX" based on the 802.16d protocol.

This is essentially the same as Cable or DSL where a consumer has an Internet modem in their home, only instead of a phone line or a coaxial cable running into that modem, the Fixed WiMAX customer has a modem with a long-distance radio antenna in it. This is the equivalent of an early beta version of WiMAX.

What Sprint has launched in Baltimore is the first U.S. deployment of Mobile WiMAX, based on the 802.16e protocol. This version of WiMAX can be used for stationary modems, but it can also provide roaming Internet access across large areas and at highway driving speeds. So if you have Xohm WiMAX as your Internet service in Baltimore, your connection is good not only in your office or your house but anywhere you go in the city and throughout most of the metro area. It's like combining your Cable Internet account with a 3G broadband account.

The limitation, of course, is that it is only in Baltimore for now. However, Sprint is preparing to launch its next two Xohm networks in Washington, D.C. and Chicago before the end of the year. Then it plans to light up Philadelphia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Clearwire is prepping Mobile WiMAX networks in Portland, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Sprint and Clearwire networks will interoperate.

In fact, Sprint is in the process of spinning off its Xohm business unit and merging it with Clearwire to create a new WiMAX company, with backing from Intel, Google, Comcast, and others. The new company will still need to raise about $3 billion of the $5 billion needed in order to compete a nationwide WiMAX network.

What does WiMAX really change?

Besides the obvious benefits of mobilizing high speed broadband, there are three significant developments that are part of WiMAX that could be game-changers in the technology industry.

1. Embeddable broadband

The cellular network was built to handle voice calls. It has been upgraded and re-engineered to handle data, but there are limitations to how much data it can handle and how much it can scale. The cellular network also has a business and usage model that strictly regulates end-point devices. That limits innovation from third-party developers on the network.

While the WiMAX network is very similar to the cellular network in its physical infrastructure, it was conceived from the ground up to be a pure IP network, built on open standards, and designed to be as open as the Internet itself. In that sense, WiMAX is simply a wireless on-ramp to the Internet.

With that in mind, Intel and several of the other founding  members of the WiMAX Forum set out to make WiMAX chips that would be mass-produced, inexpensive, and royalty-free. It has worked. Embedded WiMAX chips for laptops, for example, are already cheaper than their embedded 3G counterparts. For example, a WiMAX module will typically add about $60-$80 to the price of a laptop, while embedded 3G will add $150-$200.

But beyond that, these cheap WiMAX chips are poised to be embedded in all kinds of devices, including

  • Parking meters
  • Home energy meters
  • Vending machines
  • Toys
  • Traffic lights
  • Cars and other motor vehicles

"The defining difference between WiMax and any other technologies is in the embedded devices," said West. "There are more than 20 WiMAX chipset manufacturers... In CDMA, there's one and a half." West was referring to Qualcomm, which dominates the CDMA market and charges royalties on its chips.

2. Wireless Applications 

With broadband being embedded in so many more devices, that also opens the door for new applications for both businesses and consumers. Since virtually anything will be able to connect to the Internet, that will offer new opportunities for connectivity apps that can streamline business processes, provide new communications opportunities, and do greater levels of data collection, for example.

West said, "WiMax really is a platform for innovation... We are inundated with people that want to work with us to build new applications."

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse added, "There will be so many applications we haven't even thought of."

3. Replacing the cellular business model

Make no mistake, Sprint and Intel are not just in the mobile broadband business as an altruistic attempt to bring fast wireless Internet access to the masses. Sprint is a distant third behind AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the U.S. cellular business and needs a better way to compete. All of the carriers know that the future lies in their data networks -- even voice traffic will eventually run over the data network.

That's why Sprint took the gamble of investing heavily in WiMAX and is doing everything it can to bring it to market as a open standard that will foster great innovation from third party hardware and software vendors.

Intel sees the writing on the wall that a lot of the computing world is migrating beyond PCs to include wireless  and mobile devices, where Intel hasn't traditionally been one of the primary chipmakers. That's Qualcomm's territory. Intel wants a piece of the action, but instead of trying to compete in the current market, Intel is investing in the next generation with WiMAX. It's also a technology that helps Intel in its core PC business because more and better connectivity usually translates into more people buying computers.

Ultimately, both Sprint and Intel want to replace the current cellular model with a platform that is open to devices and applications and ties into all of the development that is already happening on the Internet.

Now, to start, Sprint's first Xohm network in Baltimore does not expressly try go after telephony.  That would be silly to do since the coverage is so limited at this point. However, I have seen prototype WiMAX phones from Motorola and others, and there are even reports that the Google G1 will eventually include a WiMAX chip or be released in a WiMAX version.

In a surprisingly frank admission at the Baltimore launch, West said, "We're not trying to go head-to-head with cellular services today. We will in the future."

Bottom line

WiMAX could be the beginning of the convergence between traditional ISPs and cellular carriers. Or WiMAX could fail to get the funding it needs and fail to win over enough users to reach critical mass before other cellular carriers come to market with their next generation cellular data technologies, such as LTE.

Which ever way it goes, it's very likely that WiMAX will drive down the cost of mobile broadband and force the other cellular carriers to become more open in their policies toward third-party devices and applications. We're already seeing Verizon Wireless take steps in this direction. This should eventually fuel a new wave of hardware and software innovation.

Topics: Broadband, Mobility, Networking, Telcos, Wi-Fi

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18 comments
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  • HUH? They still can't get audio right

    Why don't you hype it a little more? What a load of crap.

    Why do you think the wireless companies harp on who's got the best audio calls? Because NONE of them do. I can attest to that. If they can't even do that, I have no faith they can do WIMAX. I find even 802.11 b/g/n to be appallingly bad within the confines of my house that has nothing special to block the signal.
    ron.cleaver@...
    • right about audio

      I don't use cell phones beyond having a pre-paid burner (~$100/year) for emergency insurance since pay phones have gone the way of the dodo.

      When someone on a cell phone calls me, I find a quick excuse to hang up as I can't stand the gurgling noisy talk.

      OTOH 802.11/g has worked great in my house during its lifetime.
      anonymous
  • Agreed- WiMax is like building the highway system

    Many of us are very excited as to what WiMax and other wireless broadband technologies will bring to society. It is analogous to when the federal government built the highway system. Huge industries came out of it and changed the transport industry immensely.

    The same will be true with wireless broadband. New packet based voice and data services will be free us from the slow and inefficient circuit switched system used today.

    Revolutionary Broadband and Energy options will drive the American economy forward. Go Obama.
    Prognosticator
    • But were is that highway system going?

      Sure, WiMax is building a highway system, so it was with the cellular network and, so it is now with 3G too. The problem is where are those highways going. They go into major metropolitan areas and not in rural or semi-rural areas. So WiMax might be revolutionary broadband, but people living in rural or semi-rural areas are unlikely to have it as an option for a very long time or never.

      To witness, I live 12 miles from the corporation limit of a major city in Ohio and I am unable to get broadband. I live too far from the switching station for DSL. My cable operator offers TV, but no cable internet. Satellite service is expensive, $500 for dish plus installation and $120 to $150 per month for service where you are unable to use VPN so telecommuting or remote corporate access is unavailable. Cellular service from all major carriers, e.g., AT&T, Sprint, TMobile and Verizon is only one bar in my house making it barely possible to make voice calls and two bars outside.

      I'm not encouraged by Sprint's rollout in Baltimore, it shows the same mentality of servicing only major metropolitan areas. WiMax is just another technology I will never be able to use so it's probably irrelevant to me.
      Andrew Houghton
      • Well, of course it's only hitting metro areas first...

        ...as that's where the highest concentration of potential customers are. But sooner or later, unlike with wired solutions, it will make it to the outer reaches when all the low metro fruit has been picked.

        After all, when the first cell carriers came out, you didn't have service from them for years after the cities did either.
        JohnMcGrew@...
      • Mobile WiMax Signal Strength & QOS

        WiMax generally provides a usable signal range of 20 miles, more or less, depending on the terrain. Mobile WiMax is a bit more difficult, but in a populated area where the network concentration is higher, it works quite well. In remote areas you may not be able to maintain a reliable signal for mobile usage but you should be able to set up a fixed directional antenna and get a really good connection - up to 60 miles away in some cases.

        There will be two factions in future communications, scrambled/encrypted/proprietary content, and content that is open/free. Business models will change, prices will change. Examples of proprietary content and data services will be quite numerous, going well beyond voice/telephony. Basic content and access will be like over the air TV for free, proprietary (paid) content will be optional.

        One might think that bottlenecks could be a problem, yet a single central backbone server can handle over a million simultaneous voice-grade connections. So I don't think it'll be a problem - all they have to do is set up more servers, probably with a fair amount of redundancy to prevent service interruptions.
        Peopleunit
    • Wow Obamarxism knows no bounds

      Note that Obama is building nothing, it's Sprint a business. Government run or government favored options will most likely ruin it.

      When the government makes decisions for the market it will screw up. You will pay more (if not directly, through "back-door" taxes) and get less. Yes, this doesn't always happen right away, look at command economies like China. In the short run it may make sense and our system may look chaotic and messy. But in the end, ours will be better and more efficient.

      stano360
  • RE: Beyond mobile broadband, WiMAX is about blowing up the wireless business model

    Whats in this for a small business owner?
    springsgate
    • Depends on the price point

      Basically it will depend on how much the service is for small businesses in terms of dollar amounts. The technology if implemented correctly will be a direct competitor of many physical network providers. This should either drive the big names like Verizon and Time Warner in to the wireless industry or set up WiMax as a competing technology. Either way prices should go down for the end users.

      The true holy grail for most network users is a wireless global network that can be implemented in a home site situation. Then companies would be able to build their own ultra wide area networks for the same cost as a few wireless modems. It will also have the advantage of taking ownership of a major network out of the hands of a few players and opening it up for countless competing businesses that should drive costs down and innovations up. In theory at least.
      mr1972
  • RE: Beyond mobile broadband, WiMAX is about blowing up the wireless business model

    Eventually, we'll have a seamless blend of computer and cell phone communications technology, all using some form of VoIP and multimedia apps.

    Imagine the total catastrophe that can occur if our internet technology is interrupted by something like a high-altitude nuclear air burst or terrorist attacks on a few Internet Exchange Points.

    We're placing all our eggs in one basket...and that's incredibly dangerous.
    jvenezia
    • but...

      Wires will never be replaced.
      High levels of availavility and security should not use wireless... this is a key to contain wireless
      aegiacometti@...
    • Scary thought!

      Though your comments are a rabbit trail. It is frightening, but keep in mind wi-max would probably be more nodal than our current system. More of a net than a grid, which would be less vulnerable, at least in theory.

      Some people think if One Wilshire was taken out in LA, most of SoCal would go down.
      stano360
  • RE: Beyond mobile broadband, WiMAX is about blowing up the wireless business model

    Is WiMax faster than 3G? I understand the difference in chip prices but that'll change with the comptition. If WiMax is faster than 3G, is there any room for 3G to get any faster or is it going to have to invent 4G?
    eclipse63
    • WiMAX is 4G

      [pre]WiMAX 4G is often called the WiFi's big sister. It is the next generation of WiFi (3G). Intel provides a dual WiMAX-WiFi chip set called "Echo Path" to help bridge the deployment gap.[/pre]

      [pre]In terms of comparison to WiFi 3G, the two most important WiMAX features are perhaps that of long range and huge bandwidth.[/pre]

      [pre]Where WiFi is a short range broadcast (300 feet), WiMAX has a theoretical range of 30 miles - with a proven reality of 10 miles. WiMAX high speed Internet offers bandwidth in the range of 70 mbps. This compares to top DSL speeds of 6 mbps, and top cable speeds of 7 to 16 mbps.[/pre]

      [pre]WiMAX also provides mobile connectivity. Imagine your notebook (or iPhone) in a car or train having moving connectivity similar to your cell phone.[/pre]

      [pre]To sum it up, WiMAX offers the high speeds associated with broadband Internet access, wireless connectivity like Wi-Fi, and broad coverage similar to what cell phone users have. Turn on your mobile PC, and you'll be instantly connected to the Internet at speeds of up to 70 megabits per second. Even after the signal is divided up between various home and corporate users, it will still surpass data transfer rates that cable modem users experience.[/pre]

      [pre]Hope this helps,[/pre]
      ~ge~
      Gary Edwards
    • WiMAX 4G

      <p>Sorry about that formating. Wrong forum :)</p>

      <p>WiMAX 4G is often called the WiFi's big sister. It is the next generation of WiFi (3G). Intel provides a dual WiMAX-WiFi chip set called "Echo Path" to help bridge the deployment gap.
      </p>

      <p>In terms of comparison to WiFi 3G, the two most important WiMAX features are perhaps that of long range and huge bandwidth.</p>

      <p>Where WiFi is a short range broadcast (300 feet), WiMAX has a theoretical range of 30 miles - with a proven reality of 10 miles. WiMAX high speed Internet offers bandwidth in the range of 70 mbps. This compares to top DSL speeds of 6 mbps, and top cable speeds of 7 to 16 mbps.
      </p>

      <p>WiMAX also provides mobile connectivity. Imagine your notebook (or iPhone) in a car or train having moving connectivity similar to your cell phone.</p>

      <p>To sum it up, WiMAX offers the high speeds associated with broadband Internet access, wireless connectivity like Wi-Fi, and broad coverage similar to what cell phone users have. Turn on your mobile PC, and you'll be instantly connected to the Internet at speeds of up to 70 megabits per second. Even after the signal is divided up between various home and corporate users, it will still surpass data transfer rates that cable modem users experience.</p>


      <p>Hope this helps,</p>

      ~ge~
      Gary Edwards
  • RE: Beyond mobile broadband, WiMAX is about blowing up the wireless business model

    I think it is a revolutionay technology. I think it is a very good text, maybe to much entusiastic... but... IT WILL BE the future. may be not wimax it self... if there is something better... this is the path to follow, technology is going in the right way
    aegiacometti@...
  • So what the heck frequency it this WiMaX running at?

    Where are they going to rob the radio spectrum this time?
    JCitizen
  • Ubiquitous Broadband

    WiMax is nice, but the real story will be ubiquitous broadband over the VHF frequencies.
    Joey1058