Whither WiMAX?

Two or three years ago we braced for a yet another communications paradigm shift — one that was supposed to take effect now. The mobile WiMAX revolution would have been fascinating for use telecom expense management folks. Maybe it still will be, but despite the tremendous promises of the technology there’s been more fizzle than pop out of it.

WiMAX is designed to provide WiFi data capabilities over large geographical regions. In North America, it’s seen limited market penetration. Here, it mostly replaces the “series of tubes” most of us use, but at the other end a fixed base station relays it all to local devices, making it functionally identical to standard broadband.

This is all well and good if you’re living in the country and need a replacement for the ol’ series of tubes, but for the rest of us, WiMAX’s real potential lies in providing broadband to mobile devices. Mobile WiMAX standards were approved in 2006 and various hardware companies promised to roll out the hardware by this year. So what happened?

In North America, the carriers and manufacturers are stuck in a holding pattern. Even though 3G has started to kick carriers out of being so miserly with data, the fact remains that the economic motives for companies to support WiMAX are murky, because they create consumer expectations of cheap, universal access — something anathema to the old business model for mobile data access. Hardware manufacturers don’t have any desire to churn out devices that won’t get broad support. WiMAX’s spotty commercial record in Canada and Australia definitely hasn’t helped either. Canada’s forerunner Inukshuk network is a traditional last-mile provider and the CEO of Australia’s Buzz Broadband dubbed his own company’s initiative a “miserable failure,” blaming second tier providers and persistent technical issues.

If there’s a viable future for WiMAX, it may be in the hands of Clearwire after it finishes merging with Sprint Nextel’s Xohm. Clearwire is the focus of a joint venture between several major carriers and may represent a positive next step for adopting the technology. From a telecom expense management perspective, this could presage several interesting changes. Strictly metered data fees are dying, but unlimited plans are generally synched to a few exclusive deals. If WiMAX succeeds, it opens the way for a competitive environment where consumers don’t have to track typical data usage — unlimited high speed will be something your phone just does. WiMAX might not be the winning backbone, but the idea’s on the table — and wouldn’t it be cool?