Blog Post

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.)

20 Responses to “More Speed Bumps Ahead for WiMAX”

  1. As we enter 2010 WIMax seems to be less of a topic. A lot of the buzz seems to have faded at the moment. Some suggest that WiMax is still the best solution for Africa and rural America. We shall see. Japan moved forward with nice installs in 2008 and 2009.

  2. Jesse Kopelman


    The problem is that three companies own the vast majority of the spectrum that is best suited for WiMAX in the US: Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon (T-Mobile and Clearwire are far far behind these others). Both Verizon and AT&T are quite profitable with their current offerings and something like WiMAX might actually lose them money if it comes too soon, as enabling 3rd-party VoIP would eat into their mobile voice cash cows. Sprint, which is not doing nearly so well as its larger competitors sees WiMAX as a competitive differentiator and thus wants it sooner rather than later. The problem is some of Sprint’s largest investors would rather the company focus on making them short term profits rather than investing in a new network which may not pay for itself in less than 10 years (Verizon had this same problem in the early days of FiOS and it may reoccur periodically as fortunes change both for that service and the overall company).

  3. I remember the days when cellular phones where carried around in little duffle-bag looking packs.

    Some day we will be looking back at a time when WiMax didn’t exist and we had to search to find a WiFi hotspot.

    Make no mistake, WiMax is coming. And when it does arrive, there will be an armageddon in the telephone, cellular, cable, satellite and other industries.

  4. It is disturbing to hear of the WiMax setbacks. It appears much of the world is doing a better job with WiMax than we are here in the USA. The Israeli company Alvarion is doing wonders in Japan, east Asia and Africa. WiMax is much better than WiFi, in my opinion. What is the problem in the U.S.A? Any ideas?