Three key challenges as WiMAX ‘grows up’

by Caroline Gabriel, ReThink Wireless

The WiMAX Forum held its global congress in Amsterdam this week, and the event was closely watched by supporters and opponents of the technology, for indications of how the sector was holding up as a new platform in a depressed economy. Overall, the verdict was ‘bearing up well’, with a strong focus on using WiMAX as flexibly as possible, wherever it could support a particular business model, rather than being too prescriptive about its applications.

The conference was, predictably, smaller than last year, because of the state of the economy and also because WiMAX has clearly moved down the hype curve in 2009. That meant that attendees might be fewer, but they were of high quality and with strong interest in WiMAX; and the tone had changed from previous years to one of cautious, but not downbeat, realism. The discussions had moved away from grand statements and blue sky technical wizardry, and towards real commercial benefits that could be reaped today.

So the next release of the 802.16 standard, 16m, was hardly mentioned, and even the potential stand off against LTE among 3G cellcos was downplayed; instead, the topics that grabbed attention were the real experiences of a diverse range of operators in commercial deployment: the need to support WiMAX networks with enhanced attention to back office systems, the core and roaming; and new, tangible trends to which 802.16e could be applied, from ultra low cost netbooks, to stimulus funding projects, to machine to machine and smart grid.

The official announcements made by the WiMAX Forum at the show were indicative of the patterns in the market. First, it said that two new companies had joined the Forum’s board, Cisco and Indian operator Tata; then announced that 14 participants were working together on WiMAX roaming trials that could provide a blueprint for the whole sector. These pieces of news neatly embody the key challenges for WiMAX as it ‘grows up’ and is tested in the cold world of a credit crunched commercial reality.

The first of these is the increasing need for the agenda to be driven by the operators who will actually deploy WiMAX, now that most of the key technological issues have been worked out, and for the carriers of the emerging economies to have a stronger voice, as Tata’s elevation indicates.

Few doubt that, while the likes of Clearwire and Japan’s UQ provide the critical proof points of the WiMAX models that can succeed in competitive mobile broadband markets, the raw growth will come from the new broadband economies, and so the appointment of Tata is vital to ensure representation of the needs of this sector.

The second challenge is highlighted by Cisco’s taking a seat on the Forum board. The IP giant’s intensified interest in WIMAX, following its far reaching agreement with Clearwire last month, has been a good boost of confidence in the technology and a reminder that WiMAX can play a key role in bringing end to end IP to mobile and broadband networks, to support the coming explosion in data and multimedia traffic over the internet. This is Cisco’s greatest growth opportunity, and it aims to support IP next generation networks from the core (and especially its carrier routers) to the device, and in the case of WiMAX, also the RAN, via its acquisition in 2007 of Navini.

The WiMAX device ecosystem is expanding and maturing. There are now over 30 notebooks and netbooks with embedded 802.16e from 16 vendors, many in Russia and the US; a rising number of dongles, modems and other form factors; several early handsets; the Clearwire ClearSpot WiFi/WiMAX ‘personal hotspot. So the next priority is to ensure there is a similarly robust ecosystem at the back end, supporting efficient IP handling, multimedia, creative billing and customer support.