WIMAX WATCH: WiMAX looks over its shoulder at chasing pack
Though industry analysts expect WiMAX to make the running in the mobile broadband market for the next few years, it will be challenged increasingly by cellular technologies such as LTE (GSM Long Term Evolution).
The world’s first major mobile WiMAX rollout is now well under way in the United States, giving air-to-ground operators an opportunity to reach their own assessment of how and when the “WiFi on steroids” technology may have a bearing on their own offerings. Sprint-backed operator Clearwire says it is operational in Baltimore, Seattle, Honolulu and Charlotte, with Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas/Fort Worth to follow this year and New York, Boston, Washington DC, Houston and the San Francisco Bay area in 2010.
“We are working to significantly extend our wireless 4G network to many more markets, giving us the ability to cover as many as 120 million people with true broadband mobility by the end of 2010,” chief executive Benjamin Wolff said last week as he reported the company’s 2008 results.
Clearwire has announced a number of new devices designed to work with its expanding network. A “personal hotspot” accessory allowing existing WiFi-enabled devices to use Clearwire is due to be available by the end of this month. From this summer it should be joined by a dual-mode 3G/4G wireless modem that will switch automatically switch between the Clearwire WiMAX service and Sprint’s nationwide 3G cellular network.
In the meantime, the PC industry is moving to put WiMAX into its products. Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Panasonic, Samsung and Toshiba are delivering new laptops incorporating an Intel WiMAX/WiFi chipset . Clearwire expects to see nearly a hundred mobile WiMAX devices – laptops, UMPCs, handhelds, USBs and modems – on the market by the end of the year.
Clearwire plans to spend $1.5-1.9 billion on system and service development this year. It says it’s currently building infrastructure to cover a total population of 75 million people, and carrying out cellsite development to cover a further 45 million by the end of next year.
Analysts predict that WiMAX will enjoy an initial lead in the mobile broadband market before grappling with LTE and other technologies. Arizona-based In-Stat sees mobile WiMAX doing well initially on the back of its early commercial deployments - LTE won’t be commercially available until late this year.
The first big collision between WiMAX and LTE should come next year, when Verizon Wireless is due to be the first company to offer commercial LTE service in the United States. Most of the other leading operators will not deploy until 2011 or 2012, however. In-Stat expects LTE to have about 23 million subscribers worldwide in 2013, growing from 176,000 next year, while nearly 82 million WiMax-enabled PCs will ship in 2013.
In the meantime, the WiMAX equipment market is seeing its first shakeout, according to Infonetics of the UK. “The WiMAX market will be leaner this year,” says directing analyst Richard Webb. “Nortel has exited, Alcatel-Lucent has shifted its R&D spending to LTE, and others will have their commitment to WiMAX tested.”
A new report from Infonetics says that the overall WiMAX equipment and device market was worth $275 million in the fourth quarter of last year – the same as in the preceding three months, with the mobile WiMAX segment increasing 5 per cent to counter a dip in the fixed segment. Worldwide sales of mobile WiMAX infrastructure equipment grew 188 per cent last year, while sales of user devices – ultra-mobile PCs, phones and external data cards - grew 121 per cent in 2008. The number of fixed and mobile subscribers reached 3.9 million, up 120 per cent.
Infonetics says that while WiMAX infrastructure revenues are being affected by the state of the global economy, strong network equipment sales will push market growth this year as more services launch and new subscribers adopt them for the first time.