The WiMAX-vs.-LTE debate has been contested furiously by backers of the technologies for years, and the weight of industry opinion has appeared to swing in recent months firmly behind LTE as the dominant technology-migration path - largely because of the lethargic pace of global WiMAX deployment.

July 14, 2008

4 Min Read
WiMAX could still play a role in global broadband market

By Tony Brown

The WiMAX-vs.-LTE debate has been contested furiously by backers of the technologies for years, and the weight of industry opinion has appeared to swing in recent months firmly behind LTE as the dominant technology-migration path – largely because of the lethargic pace of global WiMAX deployment.

But although WiMAX might be getting pushed further into the margins, too many commentators are jumping on the bandwagon and criticizing the technology.

Although LTE is the chosen migration path for the world’s leading mobile operators – and HSPA/LTE is going to clean up in developed markets, where subscribers will supplement or even replace their fixed-line residential broadband connections with high-speed HSPA/LTE wireless-broadband service – WiMAX, for all its technical and strategic frailties, still has a potentially huge role to play in the global wireless-broadband market.

It will have no better opportunity to prosper than in Asia Pacific, where billions of people have no means of accessing a fixed-line broadband service.

The industry must remember that fixed broadband remains a relatively niche service in Asia Pacific, which had only 125 million broadband subscriptions at end-2007, compared with 1.34 billion mobile subscriptions.

Developed markets in Asia Pacific will approach broadband saturation over the next few years, and billions of potential broadband subscribers in developing markets are still unable to obtain fixed-line broadband services because no fixed-line infrastructure exists to provide connectivity.

Wireless broadband services are therefore going to be the primary source of Internet connectivity for such markets, and they need to be durable enough to withstand heavy demand for data from billions of users who have been locked out of the Internet era.

Those who tout wireless broadband services delivered over HSPA/LTE networks to give these users their much-needed connectivity should remember that such networks are primarily voice-based and are not designed to provide core broadband services to millions of subscribers.

Data-traffic volumes on HSPA operators’ networks are about 1% as high as those on their fixed-line counterparts’ networks, and HSPA networks are delivering speeds far below their theoretical maximum, even with such relatively light usage.

As a result, there is still a massive case to be made for a specialist data-transmission technology, such as WiMAX, to deliver primary broadband services to billions of subscribers in Asia Pacific, most notably in the potentially huge markets of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

There are, of course, problems of affordability, a lack of PCs and a lack of literacy in these countries, shrinking the available market for wireless broadband services. But these three countries have a combined population of 1.5 billion, so there will still be rich pickings available for operators.

In addition, early signs from even chronically poor Bangladesh show that there is a huge pent-up demand for broadband. Mobile operators are already seeing strong growth in the market for even snail’s-pace GPRS/EDGE wireless broadband services.

But despite the potential golden opportunity for WiMAX to deliver connectivity in areas where fixed-line networks are simply never going to be rolled out, WiMAX has some serious problems to overcome if it is to make its case in developing markets.

The first is that mobile WiMAX is jumping around the spectrum band like some sort of crazed rabbit, with deployments taking place across the globe in the 3.5GHz, 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz spectrum bands.

This has massively reduced the potential for WiMAX operators to benefit from the substantially lower prices that would result from standardized network and end-user equipment.

Given the fact that the technology’s key opportunities are in some of the poorest markets on the planet, WiMAX operators must keep affordability in mind and need to do all they can to drive the price of network and customer equipment as low as possible to make the technology accessible to the mass market.

Despite the limitations of HSPA/LTE core broadband networks, mobile operators are going to try bundling wireless broadband with voice services to take advantage of the opportunities being offered by markets with low broadband penetration. And the huge scale of their existing mobile operations means that they will be able to offer HSPA/LTE modems and wireless broadband services at a significantly lower price than WiMAX operators.

That means that WiMAX operators must not only drive their prices as low as possible by pushing for standardization of equipment but must also offer an innovative service that capitalizes on the advantages they have over mobile operators in terms of downlink speeds.

Many mobile operators are highly skeptical of WiMAX’s operating performance in a commercial setting. Nikolai Dobberstein, chief strategy officer of Malaysian operator Maxis, was particularly scathing about WiMAX’s technical capabilities during a panel session at the recent CommunicAsia Summit in Singapore.

Dobberstein told delegates that he had major concerns about WiMAX’s ability to deliver quality in-building reception and said he was skeptical about WiMAX base stations’ ability to deliver reliable services over areas as wide as its backers say it will, especially in a commercial environment.

There is only one way for WiMAX to get past such doubts about its technical abilities: The technology must get out into the market and prove its many critics wrong.

With commercial WiMAX launches scheduled in India, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Malaysia by year-end – and on the horizon in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines – the opportunity is right there for WiMAX to grasp. The question is whether it can do so.

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