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WiMax on the brink

The much-talked-about wireless broadband technology is on the brink of either greatness or eternal obscurity, but network operators need more convincing if it's to be the former
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
The much-talked-about wireless broadband technology is on the brink of either greatness or eternal obscurity, and its backers want to make sure it's the former Wireless broadband technologies like WiMax and MobileFi could still end up winners -- and possibly stymie 3G -- even if the big mobile firms get cold feet over the tech, new research claims.

Although some mobile operators are already dipping their toe in WiMax waters -- mmO2 is already looking into the technology's potential -- WiMax will have to prove itself before mobile's big players will be persuaded to open their wallets, a new report from research firm Analysys claims.

"In principle, mobile operators could adopt broadband wireless access [BWA] technologies alongside, or instead of, 3G," the report said. "While BWA technologies may have performance advantages over 3G [including moving data faster] their vendors must address some difficult questions to achieve widespread deployment," the report says.

Among the potential problems for mobile adoption is cost -- with early trials delivering a tiny fraction -- just 1 percent -- of the revenue per MB of bread-and-butter voice and messaging.

By contrast, the technologies will only take off if operators go all-out and plump for wide scale deployments -- the best way to getting the 'economies of scale' necessary for operators and vendors. If this can't be achieved, the report warns WiMax could just end up as a last-mile niche player.

For the moment, it seems, tinkering with 3G -- with upgrades including HSDPA - may be more in the vendors' interest. The report claims that none of the BWA technologies have yet to give operators the right mix of factors, including support and performance, making HSDPA more attractive in the short term.

3G also has time on it side -- WiMax, for example, isn't likely to make it into the wider mobile arena before 2007, at which point third-generation phones will make up 25 per cent of all shipments according to analyst house IDC.

However, more than one way to get WiMax and its ilk adopted. The report also foresees potential for BWA technologies as a competitor to fixed broadband services -- although such technologies are already being used in this way: Kent is soon to get the UK's first WiMax network, for example.

Dr Mark Heath, co-author of the new report, said that a selection of wireless companies could turn WiMax and similar technologies to their advantage -- but are unlikely to be serious contenders unless they invest in voice-over-IP.

"Fixed operators, ISPs, WLAN hotspot providers and major consumer and business-to-business brands could deploy the technologies to offer a mix of voice and data services in direct competition with mobile operators but they are going to need a really strong business case and wireless voice-over-IP will be critical to boosting revenues and profitability," he said in a statement.

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