While WiMAX appears to be set for commercial deployment in some US markets by year-end, the technology itself has been plagued by various fits and starts.
One of its biggest problems has been at the carrier level, where only Sprint-Nextel has adopted it as its 4G technology of choice. While Sprint had initially billed itself as "the 800-pound gorilla in WiMAX," the carrier has gone through a period of turmoil over the past year and is still working on turning itself around.
Things seemed to be going in the right direction last year when Sprint and Clearwire signed a letter of intent to jointly build out a US-wide WiMAX network, but their plans fell apart soon after then-Sprint CEO Gary Forsee, who had been instrumental in investing in WiMAX, resigned under investor pressure. Officially, the two companies said they "could not resolve complexities" involved in the original plan for building out a nationwide WiMAX network, although they continued to negotiate with one another on an alternative plan.
WiMAX enthusiasts were finally rewarded for their patience last month when Sprint and Clearwire finally struck a deal to combine their WiMAX businesses and create a new US$14.5 billion mobile broadband company. In addition to combining their own businesses, the companies also secured US$3.2 billion in total investments from several major technology and communications companies, including Google, Intel, Comcast, Time-Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. The two companies also recently joined Cisco and Intel in creating a WiMAX patent pool to help spur on WiMAX innovation.
But although WiMAX is certainly back on track, it is unlikely that the technology will be making a huge impact on enterprise IT services by year-end. In the first place, Sprint's commercial WiMAX network has only been soft-launched so far in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Additionally, the commercial WiMAX network only met Sprint's own commercial-deployment standards last month, and the company has yet to set a firm date for when WiMAX will be fully commercially deployed across the US.
"By the end of the year, we're unlikely to see WiMAX as an across-company enterprise service, because it won't be deployed broadly enough in North America to sign on to it as a utility-type service," says Forrester analyst Chris Silva. "You'll be able to use it where cellular data coverage is not that great, but it will not be a viable full replacement for cellular data coverage this year."
Companies might also want to consider the status of WiMAX's competition when evaluating whether to use it for wireless broadband in the near future. In terms of carrier selection, WiMAX is getting blown out of the water by Long Term Evolution (LTE), the GSM-based 4G technology that is scheduled to be supported by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. While WiMAX is still projected to have nearly a two-year time-to-market advantage over LTE, Silva notes that any further delays could cause companies to simply wait until LTE services hit the market before investing in 4G services.
"When enterprises start thinking about investing in 4G services, they'll have to be thinking about whether it will make more sense to wait for LTE," he says. "In the end, WiMAX's success may come down to its price value in comparison to LTE."