WiMAX: A Telco Technology in Internet Garb

In a recent column for InfoWorld, Ephraim Schwartz explains why carriers such as Sprint and Clearwire are promoting WiMAX so aggressively.

As it turns out, the carriers aren’t simply enamored of WiMAX’s potential range, throughput, and compatibility with existing IP-based infrastructure and management systems.

There’s another reason, and Schwartz distills it in this quote from Juan Santiago, senior director of product and strategy at Motorola:

WiMAX is a licensed spectrum. It is a service provider who will provide it. You can’t provide it yourself.

In other words, it’s not like WiFi, which runs on unlicensed spectrum and can be bought and installed by consumers and enterprises for use in homes, businesses, and nearly anywhere else.

Quoting Schwartz on WiMAX:

As a licensed spectrum, that must mean someone had to pay for it. Why, that could mean they might make me pay for it — by the minute, the hour, the megabyte? What do you think?

“But,” you might say, “prices will fall as WiMAX network providers face competition.” What competition? It looks like a closed club to me.

According to research from telecom analysis firm Maravedis, Sprint and Clearwire own the lion’s share of the spectrum allocated for WiMAX. Sprint owns 268 protected service areas and Clearwire owns 59. BellSouth is third with 36. Meanwhile Motorola, the equipment supplier to both, just bought Clearwire’s equipment manufacturer and Clearwire subsidiary NextNet.

Schwartz also points out that, even though Intel plans to put dual WiFi/WiMAX chip sets into millions of notebooks PCs, the radios cannot operating simultaneously.

All of which explains, says Schwartz, why WiMAX advocates are arguing that WiFi will only be suitable for use in the home. Motorola’s Santiago and others say because Wi-Fi is free or unlicensed, it is subject ot interference. They also contend that Metro Wi-Fi doesn’t make sense, because it takes too many access points to deploy across a city.

There might be some truth to what Santiago and other WiMAX proponents say, but does WiMAX — a closed, telco-controlled wireless access network — represent a better alternative for consumers and businesses? I don’t think so.

As for Schwartz, he closes his column as follows:

End-users and corporate users may not have much say in how this plays out in the end, but sometimes doing business is like defending democracy: An informed citizenry is the best defense.


2 responses to “WiMAX: A Telco Technology in Internet Garb

  1. Brad, outside the US it is not a “done deal” that WiMAX will be deployed only in licensed spectrum. A report from OECD last year expressed skepticism about WiMAX’s suitability for license exempt spectrum, but the report also included the results of a survey of OECD members which showed that many are open to the idea of allowing WiMAX in unlicensed bands, although most would apply the existing power limits to any new broadband technology. For a summary of unlicensed WiMAX possibilities – extracted from the OECD report and supplemented with our own research – see http://www.openspectrum.info/wimax.html

    Nevertheless, there are technical reasons why WiMAX will be difficult to implement as a license exempt technology, unless a lot of spectrum is made available for it. More likely is a “lite licensing regime” (registration) that may not involve the purchase of spectrum use rights.

    Thanks for the pointer to Schwartz’s article. We put it into our RSS newsfeed, borrowing your “telco technology in Internet garb” tagline (with credit to you)


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