Business Challenges for Broadband Wireless and WiMAX
Despite the marketing hype and the broad industry support for the development of WiMAX, its
success is not a forgone conclusion. In fact, broadband wireless in general and WiMAX in particular
face a number of challenges that could impede their adoption in the marketplace.
The rising bar of traditional broadband: In the fixed broadband application space,
WiMAX will have to compete effectively with traditional wired alternatives, such as DSL and
cable, to achieve widespread adoption in mature markets, such as the United States. DSL and
cable modem technologies continue to evolve at a rapid pace, providing increasing data rate
capabilities. For example, DSL services in the United States already offer 3Mbps–6Mbps of
downstream throughput to the end user, and solutions based on the newer VDSL2 standard will
soon deliver up to 50Mbps–100Mbps, depending on the loop length. With incumbent carriers
pushing fiber deeper into the networks, the copper loop lengths are getting shorter, allowing for
significantly improved data rates. Cable modem technologies offer even higher speeds than
DSL. Even on the upstream, where bandwidth had been traditionally limited, data rates on the
order of several megabits per second per user are becoming a reality in both DSL and cable. The
extremely high data rates supported by these wired broadband solutions allow providers to offer
not only data, voice, and multimedia applications but also entertainment TV, including HDTV.
It will be extremely difficult for broadband wireless systems to match the rising throughput
performance of traditional broadband. WiMAX will have to rely on portability and mobility as
differentiators as opposed to data rate. WiMAX may have an advantage in terms of network
infrastructure cost, but DSL and cable benefit from the declining cost curves on their CPE, due
to their mature-market state. Given these impediments, fixed WiMAX is more likely to be
deployed in rural or underserved areas in countries with a mature broadband access market. In
developing countries, where existing broadband infrastructure is weak, the business challenges
for fixed WiMAX are less daunting, and hence it is much more likely to succeed.
Differences in global spectrum availability: As discussed earlier, there are considerable
differences in the allocation and regulations of broadband spectrum worldwide. Although
2.5GHz, 3.5GHz, and 5.8GHz bands are allotted in many regions of the world, many growth
markets require new allocations. Given the diverse requirements and regulatory philosophy of
various national governments, it will be a challenge for the industry to achieve global harmonization.
For WiMAX to be a global success like Wi-Fi, regulatory bodies need to allow full flexibility
in terms of the services that can be offered in the various spectrum bands.
Competition from 3G: For mobile WiMAX, the most significant challenge comes from 3G
technologies that are being deployed worldwide by mobile operators. Incumbent mobile operators
are more likely to seek performance improvements through 3G evolution than to adopt
WiMAX. New entrants and innovative challengers entering the mobile broadband market using
WiMAX will have to face stiff competition from 3G operators and will have to find a way to differentiate
themselves from 3G in a manner that is attractive to the users. They may have to
develop innovative applications and business models to effectively compete against 3G.
Device development: For mobile WiMAX to be successful, it is important to have a wide
variety of terminal devices. Embedding WiMAX chips into computers could be a good first step
but may not be sufficient. Perhaps WiMAX can differentiate from 3G by approaching the market
with innovative devices. Some examples could include WiMAX embedded into MP3 players,
video players, or handheld PCs. Device-development efforts should also include multimode
devices. A variety of broadband systems will likely be deployed, and it is critical that diverse
networks interoperate to make ubiquitous personal broadband services a reality. Ensuring that
device development happens concomitant with network deployment will be a challenge.