On its way to irrelevance, WiMAX stops at the airport

While there are about 17.7 million WiMAX subscribers around the world, and the WiMAX Forum estimates there will be 45 million by 2013, the future of the technology is looking bleak. Declan Byrne, director of marketing at the WiMAX Forum, admits that when it comes to mobile broadband, Long Term Evolution technology has won, which leaves WiMAX as an also-ran for mobile networks and searching for new applications, like the smart grid, to keep the tech alive and the standards organization afloat.

Byrne played down the death of WiMAX in the mobile space, noting that smaller operators are still using it, and larger ones such as Japanese telco KDDI are leveraging it as an underpinning to help take stress of the LTE network. However, as Sprint (s s) and Clearwire (s clwr) determine the future of WiMAX in the U.S., Byrne recognizes how hard the technology will take a hit when the service providers move away from WiMAX. Of the 4.5 million WiMAX subscribers added each quarter, about 3.5 million come from Sprint/Clearwire. “Certainly whatever Sprint does could affect our subscriber growth,” Byrne said.

The likely defection of Sprint/Clearwire from the WiMAX camp isn’t the only problem. Byrne said vendors aren’t supporting the next-generation WiMAX technology that would offer faster speeds and more capacity. As for the actual gear, he said no one is committing to it today. It’s a chicken and egg problem — operators want the gear-makers to commit before they deploy a technology — but gear makers want to see wide-scale adoption before they invest in the architecture.

But despite the defection of the standard’s biggest growth engine and a technology road map that has hit a dead-end, Byrne remains undaunted (or at least undeterred when it comes to pitching a future for WiMAX). He said WiMAX’s two best hopes are airports and smart grid deployments. After the FAA designated the 5.3 GHz band as the appropriate channel for ground communications at airports, it opened the door to WiMAX in use at airports. Byrne expects to see local airport authorities start buying WiMAX gear.

This is a $5 billion opportunity according to Byrne, which is somewhat of a comedown from the $120 billion operators are expected to spend updating their networks this year, but still it’s something. However, Byrne’s confidence may be overstated. Several airports are evaluating WiMAX as one of several standards to provide ground communications; the WiMAX version of this is called AreoMACS.

If the airline business doesn’t take off, Byrne also plans on the smart grid offering a form of salvation for WiMAX, something I’m not so sure will come to pass. San Diego Gas and Electric is using WiMAX as a network for its smart grid, as are utilities in Australia and Canada, but utilities seem to be gravitating toward both wireless mesh technologies like those from Silver Spring Networks, and LTE instead of WiMAX.

For example, GridNet, a company that was providing gear for WiMAX-based smart grid networks has shifted its strategy away from WiMAX and more towards acting as an agnostic software provider for any kind of wireless network. Utilities have only been embracing WiMAX in very specific instances, and not as an overall trend. So the WiMAX Forum appears to be sugar-coating its survival as the technology’s opportunities shrink.