SINGAPORE--Industry players agree that much of WiMax's future success depends on the availability of global roaming.
Speaking at the Wireless Broadband Week conference here, Dean Walters, CIO of Austar, an Australian pay TV and Internet service provider, said WiMax technology still lacks an element that enables global roaming across WiMax networks.
"The methodologies and standards in WiMax roaming have yet to be finalized by the WiMax Forum," he said. "Roaming is going to be a key piece, if WiMax is to be successful."
Austar currently provides a wireless broadband service in Wagga Wagga, a city in the Australian state of New South Wales. The company is working to extend the service across 25 locations in the country, reaching 750,000 homes by the end of 2007, Walters said.
The WiMax Forum, a nonprofit association that promotes the adoption of WiMax-certified equipment by wireless broadband service providers, is already working toward a framework that will encourage the establishment of global roaming relationships among service providers.
The organization noted in a research paper in June this year that global roaming among WiMax service providers will allow subscribers to access different networks using the same device and a single, familiar interface.
"Global roaming will become an essential feature of the mobile service offering that will increase the attractiveness to the subscribers and generate additional revenues," the WiMax Forum said. The document also noted that by signing roaming agreements similar to those in place for cellular networks, "service providers will be able to get the desired footprint in their market without having to build an extensive infrastructure".
WiMax vendors at the event generally agreed that global roaming is important for WiMax to succeed, at least when the mobile variant of the technology takes off.
Ray Owen, director of GSM and wireless broadband at Motorola Networks Asia-Pacific, said: "Global roaming will be important to WiMax in the long term. But I do not believe it is critical today, because WiMax is mainly used now in a fixed or nomadic sense."
He added: "In future, when we start seeing mobile WiMax in mobile devices, it will become much more important."
Jay Andersen, vice president of sales and operations at Motorola Networks Asia, said mobility is not a key focus at this juncture in some parts of Asia where broadband penetration is low, as service providers are looking to offer broadband services to underserved areas and there is still a lack of WiMax devices.
Robert Inshaw, Asia-Pacific director of WiMax and emerging technologies at Nortel, noted the importance of having mobile WiMax handsets that work on different WiMax spectrums allocated across the globe--similar to the quad-band GSM cellphones available today.
"People just want to take their connections wherever they go and access the Internet. You get off the airport, fire off the laptop and connect to a WiMax network," he said.
"I don't think roaming is a big part in initial business cases to people doing WiMax today. But it's certainly what service providers are looking at to drive the scale and volume of devices," Inshaw added.
Apart from global roaming, Inshaw said regulatory uncertainty is also one major issue that will impede the growth of WiMax in the Asia-Pacific region.
"Spectrum's still to be auctioned off in a large number of countries, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia," Inshaw said. "In New Zealand, the government recently made some noise about wanting to re-auction off the [already allocated] 2.3GHz spectrum."
"Those are the sort of regulatory issues that tend to delay deployment of WiMax," he added.
According to analyst company Frost & Sullivan, WiMax will not be commercially available in portable devices until 2009, although several vendors have launched trials of the wireless broadband technology this year.