Mobile WiMax gear lifts off

Mobile WiMax has turned a corner toward success, analysts said

Mobile WiMax, hyped for years by Intel and other vendors, has turned a corner toward reality, according to industry observers.

Mobile technology was outpacing the licensed wireless broadband market overall, and gear based on the emerging IEEE 802.16e mobile WiMax standard was leading the way, Sky Light Research said.

Unit shipments of network equipment and end-user devices for mobile broadband data grew 117 per cent in 2006 from the previous year, according to US-based Sky Light. Products built to the IEEE 802.16e standard led in growth even though the WiMax Forum industry group hadn't started certifying that the mobile products work together, analyst, Donna Carlson, said. WiMax Forum certification was set to begin in the middle of this year.

Sky Light's report also included Time Division-Code Division Multiple Access (TD-CDMA), IEEE 802.20 and proprietary products using Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDMA). It did not include advanced third-generation mobile systems because they were voice-based, Carlson said.

The entire wireless broadband market is fairly small, with about 26,000 base stations and about 1.5 million units of customer equipment shipped last year.

Base station units overall were up 57 per cent and customer gear up 88 per cent. But mobile WiMax was just gaining momentum, Carlson said.

Intel's backing had given WiMax a leg up, and Sprint Nextel made a big difference when it announced last year it would deploy mobile WiMax across the US for commercial service starting next year, Carlson said.

"It helped to sway carriers and open dialogues that were pretty much on hold for a while," Carlson said.

Current Analysis analyst, Peter Jarich, agreed.

"We've definitely built up momentum, and we're over that hump," Jarich said. Another driver has been the European Commission's move toward letting service providers use WiMax and other technologies in a spectrum band coming up for auction soon. The spectrum, around 2.5GHz, had originally been envisioned as being used for 3G cellular networks.

The WiMax Forum's second wave of certification is what really matters, Jarich said, because it would include performance-enhancing features such as multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) antenna systems and beam-forming. He predicted that testing would start late this year or in early 2008. Vendors were already rolling out 802.16e products that could probably be modified if necessary for certification, he said.

The progress didn't mean there wouldn't be kinks to work out, Jarich said. For the first year it's out there, the performance of mobile WiMax might disappoint users, he said. For one thing, unlike 3G systems, WiMax wasn't designed for mobility from the beginning, so it may take time to work out functions such as handoffs. But with real-world experience, he predicted carriers and vendors would be able to work out those problems.

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