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Wireless industry gears up for WiMax

Where does 3G wireless go from here? Many equipment makers and carriers are looking to the packet-based technology known as WiMax.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

As top executives gather in Orlando, Fla., this week at the CTIA Wireless 2007 trade show, an emerging technology called WiMax will likely be a hot topic among carriers and equipment makers from around the world. Many, in fact, are gearing up to deploy WiMax services.

Mobile operators have barely rolled out their new third-generation wireless networks, and they're already talking about the fourth generation. As next-generation cellular technologies--including those of the Long Term Evolution (LTE) project, whose mission is to guide the evolution of GSM cellular networks--have trouble getting off the ground, the industry has been turning its attention toward the WiMax packet-based technology.

"If the 3GSM show is any indication, then I think we will be hearing a lot about WiMax at CTIA," said Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of marketing for the Wimax Forum, referring to the 3GSM World Congress trade show held in February in Barcelona. "The technology is getting close to commercialization, and there has been a lot of buzz the past several months."

WiMax, which is similar to another packet-based wireless technology, Wi-Fi, already has the foundation for a strong ecosystem thanks to support from handset and infrastructure makers including Motorola, Samsung and Nokia, as well as from chipmaker Intel.

These companies are all expected to have WiMax products in the market sometime this year, and some will be shown off at CTIA. Samsung, for example, is expected to have on hand some of its already-announced WiMax-ready gear, including a handset, ultra-mobile PC and a new USB dongle that offers wireless broadband for laptops.

The WiMax Forum, the industry group that promotes the technology, has almost completed the necessary certification requirements for new products, another major step that could help push deployment. According to Shakouri, products using the 2.3GHz spectrum, which is used primarily in South Korea, will be certified by midyear. Products using the 3.5GHz will be certified in the third quarter, and products using the 2.5GHz spectrum, which is used mostly in the U.S., will have certification available by the end of the year.

WiMax, whose transmission distances range from a few hundred feet in densely populated areas to more than a mile in suburban areas, can support peak data speeds of 20 megabits per second, although average-user data rates fall between 2mbps and 8mbps. Data rates for the next-stage 3G cellular service--sometimes called 3.5G--are about 3mbps.

Asian markets lead the way
Momentum among carriers is already building. In Japan more WiMax-compatible spectrum will be allocated by the government later this year. Korea Telecom in South Korea is already committed to launching its WiMax service this year. There are also plans to launch WiMax services in India, Malaysia and Pakistan, as well as in parts of Eastern Europe, Shakouri said. And the government in Taiwan is spending $1 billion to encourage the manufacture and development of 2.5GHz WiMax products and applications.

In the U.S. Sprint, the No. 3 carrier, has already said it plans to spend $3 billion in the next two years to build a WiMax network, which is expected to be able to provide service to 100 million people by the end of 2008. Sprint is using its existing 2.5GHz spectrum, half of which it acquired from its merger with Nextel, to deliver the new service.

On Monday, Sprint announced several new cities that will be part of the WiMax network, It also named which of its named infrastructure partners would be developing which markets. Motorola will be developing Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids, Mich. Samsung will develop Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Providence, R.I. And Nokia will develop Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Sprint had previously announced that Chicago and Baltimore/Washington, D.C., would be the first two markets to get the service, by the end of 2007. And Nokia had also previously named it would develop four markets, in Texas, for deployment in early 2008: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Currently, the only other operator in the U.S. using WiMax is a start-up called Clearwire, which was founded by mobile-industry billionaire Craig McCaw. Today it delivers WiMax broadband services to fixed locations, but eventually the company will offer mobile service as well. Clearwire, which raised $900 million in venture backing this summer, went public earlier this month.

But building the network is only one part of the challenge, WiMax will also fundamentally change the business model of wireless service providers.

For one, those who support the technology envision that WiMax chips will be embedded not only in mobile phones but in a plethora of mobile devices, from MP3 players to digital cameras, that won't be marketed or sold by WiMax network operators, even though the devices will work on their networks.

More devices, a bit less control
Analysts say there are pros and cons to this approach.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "The operator doesn't have to subsidize the devices, but they are also giving up some control."

And because more devices will be able to access the network, operators such as Sprint will likely have to adapt their subscription models.

Today, people must subscribe to separate services if they have more than one device accessing the cellular network. But in a WiMax world, where someone might own three or four WiMax-compatible devices, separate subscriptions for each of those devices to access the network wouldn't make sense.

John Polivka, spokesman for Sprint, said the company hasn't finalized its subscription model, but he said it will likely offer different tiers of service that would allow people to connect a certain number of devices to the WiMax network for a given price.

"If you have a household where there is a media player, a gaming station, a camera and a phone, and you want wireless broadband access for all of them, you could buy a bundled subscription," he said.

But WiMax operators may also partner with application providers to offer other variations of the service. Golvin suggested that Sprint may partner with a company like Kodak, which would bundle WiMax into its online picture-sharing service. This might allow people to automatically upload their photos over a WiMax network as soon as they're taken.

Even though Sprint's plans and Clearwire's IPO have generated a lot of buzz here in the U.S. for WiMax, The WiMax Forum's Shakouri said he expects WiMax to grow more rapidly outside the U.S. In mature technology markets, such as Japan and South Korea, mobile WiMax is seen as a compliment to existing 3G wireless networks where users are already hungry for the next boost in wireless bandwidth.

In developing markets, such as India, Malaysia or Pakistan, WiMax can help provide fixed broadband services in places where operators are unable to cost-effectively deploy other broadband technologies, because they lack the wired infrastructure.

But in the U.S. market, Shakouri said, WiMax spectrum is limited, and right now Sprint and Clearwire are the only two major carriers with enough of it to support a service. What's more, consumers in the U.S. are just starting to use 3G data networks, and the two largest cellular service providers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, also happen to be two of the largest broadband providers in the U.S. As a result, there is little incentive for them to offer fixed-address WiMax service as broadband replacement.

"Clearwire and Sprint are very committed to WiMax," Shakouri said. "And we wish there were more carriers in the U.S. interested, but there isn't enough spectrum available right now. That's why I think we'll see deployment happen a lot faster in other parts of the world, especially Asia."

 
Correction: This story misidentified a Sprint spokesman. His name is John Polivka.