WiMax promises to shake up wireless data market

Wimax, often likened to Wi-Fi on steroids, has two advantages over LTE: it's available today, and is free from the hefty royalty charges required for 3G (third-generation) mobile devices and equipment.

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Mobile operators may be counting on LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technology to offer high-speed mobile data access in coming years, but WiMax services will arrive first, promising to shake up the wireless data market in the process.

WiMax offers high-speed Internet access over a wide area and comes in two versions, a fixed-wireless version and another for mobile. The technology, often likened to Wi-Fi on steroids, has two advantages over LTE: it's available today and is free from the hefty royalty charges required for 3G (third-generation) mobile devices and equipment. By comparison, LTE has another two to three years to go before it can be deployed and, because the radio uplink uses CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), device makers will have to pay substantial royalties to Qualcomm.

"They charge a 5 percent royalty on the handset or devices, and that's on the retail side...Behind the door, they're charging anywhere from 15 to 30 percent on the chipsets," said Bill Rojas, director of communications research at IDC Asia-Pacific, adding that WiMax backers have agreed to a much lower royalty for using the technology.

While lower royalties and the earlier rollout of commercial services gives WiMax an edge over LTE, there are still obstacles that must be overcome before the technology can be widely deployed.

The immediate challenge WiMax faces is product interoperability. WiMax Forum, the industry group that oversees the certification process, has only approved the interoperability of a handful of WiMax products designed to operate in the 2.3GHz spectrum. This frequency is used in South Korea while most other markets expect to use the 2.5GHz to 3.5GHz spectrum bands.

In addition, the certified products are based on the Wave 1 version of WiMax, which does not support MIMO (Multiple-In, Multiple-Out) antenna technology, or other advanced features found in the Wave 2 version of WiMax that operators, including those in Korea, plan to deploy. As a result, the certified products announced by WiMax Forum are largely irrelevant to wider adoption of the technology.

WiMax Forum will not certify the interoperability of Wave 2 WiMax products until the second half of this year, at the earliest - nearly a year behind schedule and after Intel releases the first Centrino 2 products in June. That timing suggests that the number of Centrino 2 laptops that ship with WiMax this year will be relatively low, but nevertheless widespread availability of the technology is not far off.

Intel sees 2008 as the year when WiMax will start to appear in computers, such as a WiMax-equipped Asustek Computer Eee PC that Sriram Viswanathan, vice president of Intel Capital, the chip maker's investment arm, and general manager of the company's WiMax Program Office, showed off in Singapore.

"We have a variety of these devices. Not all of them will be launched on the first day, but the fact is during the second half (of 2008) you will see a plethora of devices," Viswanathan said in a recent interview.

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