WiMax's unsteady progress

Advocates are still talking up the technology. They should be listening to customers instead

By now, WiMax was supposed to be big, going on huge. As it is, it remains effectively stuck in trial phase and very far from revenue rich; with around 270,000 subscribers worldwide last year, the main beneficiaries have probably been the vendors of WiMax market reports at $3,000 (£1,502) a pop.

The trouble with WiMax is that, as far as consumers can tell, it has no unique selling point over 3G or DSL. Take the latest deployment — on the island republic of Malta, which is getting a fixed WiMax network. Malta has a poor 3G service and a monopoly DSL wholesaler; it's also small and can be covered with a manageable investment in base stations. Under those conditions, and the strict deadlines the regulator imposed on broadband wireless operators for rollout, WiMax looks like a decent bet to the operators. To the consumers, it looks like a so-so 1Mbps service.

Beware of anyone trying to generalise from such examples. Each territory has its own complex equation to solve. Geographical, political, commercial and regulatory factors are all massively variable. 3G, although by no means immune to such considerations, has inherited GSM's empire and has a massive territorial advantage.

If WiMax is to have a chance, it needs to create that unique selling point, and it needs to concentrate on places where 3G is weak. If territorial presence is 3G's gift from its telco parents, then its curse is their antiquated way of thinking. Where they see threat or a chance to gouge the users, then WiMax should see advantage. Voice over IP, integrated messaging, unfettered internet access and no international roaming charges — if WiMax is, as claimed, so much more efficient than 3G, then these will be the best ways of showing it.

For that to work, the companies behind WiMax have to create a globally coherent brand with a globally coherent message — as well as the small matter of getting the mobile standard out there. Joining the WiMax club should be a passport to something special, something you can't get any other way. As it is, the standard runs the risk of becoming what you get when nothing else is available.

As yet, there is no message beyond the "We're going to be fabulous" boosterism coming from those already in the game. We'll need more than that to be convinced.