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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Designed as an upgrade for 3G and HSPA networks, LTE will offer greater bandwidth than current mobile technologies. For example, NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest mobile operator, announced last month that its LTE trials had achieved a 250M bits per second (bps) download speed. The high-speed technology could start appearing in its networks by 2010, the operator said.

Vodafone, one of the world's biggest operators, is also backing LTE. Trevor Gill, head of networks at Vodafone Group R&D, reportedly told attendees at a UK conference the technology was likely to be selected as a future upgrade for the operator's HSPA networks, even as it continues to watch WiMax closely.

Not all cellular operators plan to skip WiMax; smaller players see the technology as a way to gain ground on larger rivals. For example, Sprint in the US and KDDI in Japan both have plans to offer WiMax. These companies and others like them, called "attackers" by industry watchers, see the earlier availability of WiMax as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage by being the first to roll out a wireless broadband service.

"With WiMax, what you're going to see is a lot of attackers go out there and deliver a service," said Peter MacKinnon, chairman of LG-Nortel. "That's what will define the WiMax market."

WiMax will also find a foothold in emerging markets, where broadband Internet penetration remains low. In these markets, the technology will be used as a fixed-wireless service, providing wireless Internet access to a fixed location, such as a home or office, rather than a service designed for mobile users.

However, operators in these markets will likely use the same version of WiMax, called 802.16e, that was developed for mobile users, because economies of scale will mean these products end up being cheaper than the fixed-wireless version of WiMax, known as 802.16d, said Margaret Rice-Jones, CEO of Aircom International, a company that helps operators plan WiMax networks.

"It also gives them the option in the future of moving to a mobile network," Rice-Jones said.

(Dan Nystedt, in Taipei, contributed to this story.)

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