WiMAX Still Rules, but You’d Never Know It

Mari Silbey —  August 5, 2011 — 7 Comments

WiMAX-deployments-worldwide

Sprint added 1.7 million WiMAX subscribers in Q2 (mostly wholesaled from Clearwire), while Verizon added 1.2 million LTE subscribers in the same time period. Long-time analyst Paul Kapustka tracked the WiMAX win over at Sidecut Reports, but he’s the only person I’ve seen report the comparison. Instead, most of the press has focused solely on Clearwire’s announcement that it’s planning to add LTE services to its portfolio. That’s great. Fantastic. But reporters have been using it to pit LTE against WiMAX, and to extend the odd “WiMAX is dead” narrative. WiMAX is not dead. And not only is it not dead, but there are several reasons to applaud the technology’s success.

  1. WiMAX was first out of the gate in the US. I started using it in Philly back in 2009.
  2. Competition is good. Even though Clearwire is shifting away from retail sales, it pioneered the no-contract 4G service, which was enough to get me to give 4G a trial run. And Sprint maintains an unlimited data plan with its WiMAX service, something other carriers have refused to do.
  3. The Sprint/Clearwire push for WiMAX deployments has sped up network upgrades across all US carriers, bringing us more 4G access on a faster timeline than we would have had otherwise.
  4. Although we focus on mobile WiMAX here in the States, fixed WiMAX technology has been a boon in numerous emerging markets around the world, particularly in areas where wireline broadband connectivity isn’t available. (The WiMAX Forum reports there are currently WiMAX deployments in 150 different countries.)
  5. There is overlap in WiMAX and LTE technology, which means lessons learned in WiMAX development can be applied in further LTE rollouts. Even as Clearwire starts adding LTE services, it will rely on much of the technology it’s already deployed with WiMAX.

So why all the WiMAX haters? I don’t know. LTE is great, but WiMAX continues to play an important role in American and global network upgrades to 4G. And that’s worth a little recognition.

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7 responses to WiMAX Still Rules, but You’d Never Know It

  1. nice article… i think there’s a general theme on the internet/gadget blogs that two different mass market technologies that largely do the same thing shouldn’t/can’t survive. HDDVD vs Bluray which inevitably leads to discussion of Betamax vs VHS. I don’t necessarily agree with that theme, but it comes up very very often.

    The funny thing is that recent articles have hinted that LTE may not allow as much freedom to change carriers as consumers are hoping. A lot of these carriers are still going to end up using a number of different frequencies with LTE. Those frequency differences may translate into unique antenna designs for each carrier where they limit your ability to move from carrier to carrier.

  2. WiMAX was never really meant for mobile use, all of the original work was on fixed services. But it was shoehorned into mobile operations with spec updates due to pressure from operators who didn’t want to wait for LTE.

    LTE & WiMAX do overlap quite a bit, even at the HW level some WiMAX base stations can be upgraded to LTE fairly simply. But LTE was alwys designed, from the start, for mobile, and it is better evolved for it with voice over LTE, etc.

    WiMAX vs. LTE is something of a replay of CDMA vs GSM – only more unbalanced, there is even less adoption of WiMAX than there was of CDMA. It has been clear for years that WiMAX was a dead service walking. There was no way (effectively) a single carrier like Sprint, especially one that’s #3 by a wide margin, could carry WiMAX alone. As pretty much every other carrier in the world has selected LTE the costs of LTE gear – both base stations and handsets – would come down rapidly due to scaling, but not WiMAX. Sure, it might get some side benefit from the commonality, but not the full benefit.

    And then there is roaming – you’d be CDMA vs. GSM again. Sprint WiMAX users would be stuck. Yes, first generation LTE radios tend to be single frequency, so Verizon won’t be able to roam onto AT&T, etc. But GSM was the same way, and in time tri-, quad-, and quint-band radios came out and we got more and more ‘world phones’ that could roam across networks because they supported the different GSM bands. The exact same thing is expected to happen with LTE.

    So, if Sprint stuck with WiMAX, they’d be faced with fewer handset options, and those they had would be more expensive as they’d be unique models just for them. With multi-band chips the same GSM phones are often sold by multiple carriers worldwide, and the same thing will happen with LTE in time.

    From day one I thought Sprint’s selection of WiMAX was shortsighted and that it wouldn’t pay off. They wouldn’t be able to build a large enough userbase to sustain it once LTE started rolling out. And that’s what’s happened.

    Sprint just keeps making terrible decisions. Acquiring Nextel was a train wreck, and adopting WiMAX was just salt in the wound. Now they’re faced with yet another messy transition – no matter what they say, they WILL phase out WiMAX and go all LTE. They just can’t come out and say it or they’ll loose customers in the short term.

  3. I don’t know how Clearwire added subscribers when they have been shown to throttle your connection, without warning, after promising unlimited broadband. If you read their support section you’ll see thousands of people demanding to know why suddenly they are only getting .25 mbps & can’t even download their email. I had Clearwire for only 2 weeks & canceled due to a slow connection & terrible help desk support.

  4. I’ve had WiMax for a few years now, and generally like it a lot. It gives me virtually unlimited bandwidth at broadband speeds when I travel, a a very nice thing to have when the hotel WiFi is more like 56K dial-up.

    The Clear WiMax plans are also much more practical than those of the (non-Sprint) cell providers. Who cares how fast LTE/4G is if you exhaust your monthly data allowance in a few days? My wife has T-mobile’s ’4G’ service on her phone, and while it’s very fast (10 down, 4 up), she would reach her 2GB of data very fast if we used it for Netflix or Hulu on the road. Haven’t had a problem with that with Clear.

    Their support does suck very badly it must be said. But their coverage is pretty comprehensive right now, especially for business travel which usually sticks to the larger metro areas anyway.

    I don’t really care what the underlying technology is. I don’t understand the hatred for WiMax and the calls for a switch to LTE. Apple’s iOS is much smaller than Windows, but I don’t hear anyone clamoring for Apple to get with the program already. Weird.

  5. Just because the life support hasn’t been detached yet doesn’t mean the patient isn’t terminal. No one important is backing this technology going forward. I’d pretty much call that dead.

    That doesn’t make me a hater, it makes me a realist.

  6. It’s now clear LTE means capped data just like 3G.

    And prices about the same.

    Plus no compatibility between carriers.

    My Clear WiMax is 8GB/month for cable speeds (6 down here) then capped @ 256kb until the next cycle.

    A bargain for $25/month on my iSpot.

  7. Wrong…Wimax is dead…I knew it all along…

    WhyMax? because every industry needs a slush fund.

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