More Speed Bumps Ahead for WiMAX

One of the promotional gimmicks planned for next week’s CES show are rides around Vegas in a car with mobile WiMAX Internet access, courtesy of WiMAX backers Intel, Clearwire and Motorola. While the demonstration of real mobile WiMAX is a big step forward for the nascent wireless technology, you have to wonder if the market- and technology-based speed bumps in WiMAX’s way will keep it from reaching highway velocity anytime soon.

Two of the biggest recent setbacks for WiMAX include the unraveling of the planned partnership between Sprint and Clearwire, and AT&T’s apparent dumping of WiMAX as a strategic “4G” technology in favor of LTE. Though Moto continues to churn out newer, better and cheaper WiMAX gear (like the single-user CPE they will be showing at CES), Clearwire’s struggle to find profitable traction and Sprint’s now-cloudy devotion to WiMAX raise the question if there will even be carriers interested in Moto’s gear, no matter the price.

And then there’s Intel, which given the recent puzzling departure of an Intel Capital exec from Clearwire’s board of directors, has some splainin’ to do about its future WiMAX Sugar Daddy plans. Maybe Intel CEO Paul Otellini will clear(wire) things up a bit during his Monday afternoon CES keynote, where WiMAX is on the topics-of-discussion menu.

While nobody is doubting that WiMAX is real and happening all over the globe — especially in developing economies that don’t have our copper legacy — it remains to be seen if WiMAX is ever going to live up to its big-bandwidth promise here in the U.S. It certainly won’t happen until the still-evolving mobile flavor of WiMAX becomes available to the mainstream, and in a form factor that makes it easy for users to adopt. Right now, the only truly mobile WiMAX gear — a Moto-built PC card — is still in field trials in Clearwire’s Seattle area, and not truly commercially available nationwide. Meanwhile, cellular data rollouts continue to grow in coverage and speed, while Wi-Fi hotspots breed like Tribbles.

Intel, despite all its dollars in backing, is way overdue for its own PC Card, something the company promised long ago but still doesn’t exist. Sure, the company says it will deliver chips that will embed WiMAX into laptops like Wi-Fi, but with major U.S. carriers AT&T and Verizon getting off the WiMAX bandwagon, it’s unlikely that the U.S. market will generate much demand, if and when those chips arrive.

So where does WiMAX go from here? At CES, there is bound to be plenty of happy talk and live demonstrations, like the one Intel performed at N+I almost three years ago. But if you are waiting for the technology to move past cool-car demos and into the mainstream, your mileage may vary.

(Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.)

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