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WiMax and the Spiggot Problem

Let me say before anything that technically, I like WiMax. It is a fine standard.

Let me say before anything that technically, I like WiMax. It is a fine standard. Nothing pleases me more than the idea of huge amounts of wireless bandwidth available everywhere at modest cost, and WiMax is certainly up to the job.

As a standard, I have nothing against it. The trouble is, as Peter Cook said of Mr Spiggot's right leg as he auditioned for the role of Tarzan, neither has WiMax. As we said earlier this week, GSM/3G is more than just a wireless standard: it is billing systems, security, roaming. It has a huge world-wide retail and support structure. It has two billion plus users.

WiMax has none of the above. If you want to be Tarzan, you do need two legs.

This realisation, and the numbers it implies for potential investors, is holding WiMax back. Even the big success stories for the standard - Sprint in the US is the one most quoted - are looking wobbly: Sprint's CEO just got booted out as part of a shareholder revolt, amid great worries over the $5 billion investment required to get the network in the air. Sprint is in a hell of a dilemma: it has the rights to the frequencies for a nationwide network, but if it doesn't use them by 2009, it loses them.

There is one thing that could save the standard. In November, the International Telecommunication Union is considering an application for WiMax to become part of IMT-2000, the umbrella for all 3G wireless. If that happens, then -- as far I understand it, for there are immense complexities involved -- it will become possible for network operators to include WiMax as another radio in ordinary mobile phones, alongside W-CDMA and the rest.

It would then be able to use all of the global GSM machinery, which would be a huge victory for common sense. Otherwise, WiMax will continue to be in the same sad state as our Mr Spiggot...

Cook: But don’t despair, Mr Spiggot. After all, you score over a man with no legs. You have a definite advantage over a man with no legs at all. In fact, if a legless man was to come in here, [that'd be xMax, then] I’d have no hesitation in saying to him Get out, run away!

Spiggot: So there is still a chance?

Cook: There is a very, very good chance.

Spiggot: I have always fancied the role.

Cook: Oh yes, if we do not get any two-legged actors in here in the next two weeks, you are exactly the sort of chap we should be trying to contact.