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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Intel doesn't expect shipments of WiMax-equipped computers to hit high volumes during 2008, largely due to the limited availability of WiMax services. As more networks come online in 2009, shipment volumes will rise but the technology will not become a standard feature on computers for some time, Viswanathan said, predicting that might happen in 2011 - about the time that LTE rollouts are just getting started.

The current lack of certification for WiMax interoperability has some operators nervous. For example, Taiwan's First International Telecom (Fitel) said a focus for the upcoming launch of its WiMax services is to reassure users their WiMax devices and add-on cards will not only work on Fitel's network but also on other WiMax networks.

"We want people to be able to roam among WiMax networks, not just in Taiwan but also foreign visitors and when Taiwanese go overseas," said Charlie C Y. Wu, Fitel's president.

Client devices aren't the only products where interoperability is critical. Transmission equipment from different vendors must also work together.

"Operators don't want to buy equipment from a single vendor for many reasons," said Mike Ropicky, a senior director of product, operations and marketing at Motorola. One of the most important is to hedge against the possibility that an equipment vendor's technology will fall behind its competitors, leaving the operator without the ability to roll out future upgrades to its service, he said.

To fill this gap in certification and reassure both users and operators, equipment makers like Motorola and LG-Nortel have embarked on their own certification programs, testing the interoperability of their products with those from other vendors, including client devices. This helped clear the way for initial trials and deployments of WiMax, and should help smooth the way forward for the rollout of more WiMax networks.

Besides the promise of broadband Internet access over large areas, WiMax promises to shake up the competitive landscape and could unseat large mobile operators from the commanding positions they now hold.

Most major mobile operators have said they won't deploy WiMax, choosing to wait for LTE to become available before they overhaul their networks and offer faster data speeds. They have little choice due to the high investments they've already made in 3G and related technologies - investments that in many cases have yet to be fully recovered.

"Operators that have spent a significant amount of money on 3G will have a hard time justifying it to their shareholders now they're going to put more money in a completely new construction," Intel's Viswanathan said.

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