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August 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 8
Next Wave Redux

Wireless Broadband will Predominate, but not WiMAX

Today, fast Internet access comes via a fixed connection — fiber if you can get it, DSL or cable if you can’t. From a technology point of view fiber will always beat wireless. It’s faster today, and both technologies are improving at roughly similar exponential rates.

But fiber requires a right-of-way and that’s complicated. Access to the right-of-way depends on complex legal and regulatory arrangements carried over from historical telephony and/or cable TV services. At best there’s a duopoly, one or more regulators and a large number of vested interests.

Wireless rules and regulations may seem equally complex but, in most countries, wireless services are competitive — sometimes very competitive. Until recently, this competition has focused on mobile voice telephony, yielding vast gains over fixed telephony. As 3G and 3.5G networks are deployed, competition is impacting the way Internet access is delivered.

Recent European experience is illustrative. The 3GSM (News - Alert) communities’ latest HSPA networks routinely deliver more than 1 Mbps downstream and several hundred Kbps upstream — speeds that will only increase with subsequent radio upgrades. At these speeds, 3G data services are routinely used to connect laptop computers to the Internet. Indeed, this is the predominate application for 3G data. A recent study in Finland shows PCs generate 92 percent of all 3G data traffic. The hottest selling 3G devices in the EU are 3G USB modems and, at least anecdotally, people are increasingly disconnecting their laptops from any fixed network. Today’s WiMAX (News - Alert) technology is ahead of HSPA and HSPA+. Only with 3GSM’s Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology will the 3GSM community catch up. However, 3GSM has an overwhelming lead in adoption — literally billions of users. Over 1 billion new terminal devices (phones and modems) are manufactured each year, so 3GSM technology leads to high-volume, low-cost consumer devices.

The second most widely adopted wireless technology is WiFi (News - Alert) with hundreds of millions of devices made per year. By comparison, WiMAX may reach 12M to 15M users by 2010. Technology leadership is not enough. Qualcom’s CDMA technology has had technical leadership for more than 15 years and yet has less than 15 percent market share and is losing ground to the promise of LTE (News - Alert).

Going forward

As long as 3GSM and WiFi keep evolving, it will be difficult for WiMAX or any other new technology to catch up. Both network equipment and terminal devices cost more when volumes are low. WiMAX will gain a foothold, just as CDMA2000 did, but it’s hard to see WiMAX doing better marketwise than CDMA2000.

The good news is that fixed-mobile substitution in Internet access will put pressure on the fixed Internet access monopolists to offer more speed and/or lower costs. IT

Brough Turner (News - Alert) is Senior VP of Technology, CTO and Co-Founder of NMS Communications (

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