Is there any future for WiMAX?

Nokia has previouisly worked on creating Wimax-enabled mobile devices

WiMAX was supposed to change the way we work, supplanting short-range Wi-Fi and giving us fast, access-it-anywhere wireless broadband.

However, research earlier this year revealed that the wide-area wireless tech will remain a niche product. Arthur D. Little, claimed that WiMAX is, at most, likely to account for a round 10 per cent of mobile wireless subscribers at the end of a five-year timeframe.

He pinpointed broadband over 3G networks as being the likely method most mobile PC users will use to connect to the net. Even in five years' time.

The trump card for WiMAX is its ability to function as a 'last mile' technology, providing a flood of Wi-Fi access where it's not currently available. Trouble is, nobody has quite decided what to use it for - especially in developed countries where communication networks such as 3G are already established. In the UK, WiMAX hasn't yet materialised in any significant way, though some select patches such as Milton Keynes, do boast the technology.

What's happening in the US?

Things aren't much rosier in the US. Two of the largest advocates, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire, have decided to shelved their partnership to collaborate on a WiMAX network with a potential reach of 100 million people. The deal was only inked in July.

The two companies said they "could not resolve complexities associated with the letter of intent and failed to reach final agreement on the terms of the transaction". Basically, they fell out.

Both companies have also stated that they will be looking to build separate networks, but it's difficult to see how WiMAX will be able to ride the storm. Each network created means that WiMAX becomes even more of a hotch-potch technology.

"Nobody's really backing away from the notion that they're going to deploy WiMAX," Mike Jude, a senior analyst at Nemertes Research told PC World. "I still think WiMAX is going to be out there, but this...indicates it might not be as extensive as we thought it would be in 2008."

What's Intel doing?

The split is sure to have raised eyebrows at Intel, who have invested over $600 million (£300 million) in Clearwire - twice the investment of Motorola, another WiMAX advocate.

Intel has previously stated - not least on various roadmaps - that WiMAX will be on board the next iteration of its Centrino chipset, due in early 2008. Intel has abandoned plans to integrate 3G.

The next Intel platform is codenamed Montevina and it will use one of the new Intel 'Penryn' Core 2 chips. The chip giant will hope that mass adoption of the technology will boost WiMAX awareness and adoption. Just as adding 802.11bg chips to the first Centrino laptops helped establish Wi-Fi.

Samsung and Nokia are among other companies which will be keeping an eye on Clearwire's developments.

The only recent boost for WiMAX was from the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) last month. The UN-backed organisation agreed that WiMAX should be regarded in the same way as 3G and as such should have consistent worldwide spectrum access for WiMAX devices.

The UK and beyond

The ITU development is a major victory for WiMAX advocates, who have spent the past few years fighting to get access to spectrum, most notably the 2.5-2.69GHz band in Europe.

"This decision is highly significant because there is no better way to secure global spectrum access for a technology than to have it recognised by these ITU conferences, which happen only every four years," said Martin Sims, managing editor of PolicyTracker. "It puts Wimax on a firm footing to challenge [fixed broadband] and 3G for mobile broadband services."

WiMAX could find its niche in territories where fixed line broadband is impractical. For example, Intel's chairman Craig Barrett recently visited Africa to see how WiMAX could be used to bring broadband to remote parts of the continent.

Barrett talked specifically about Nigeria, where there is no copper cabling. "There is only one way to connect to the net and that is using wireless technologies," he said. Perhaps this is the near-future for WiMAX technology.


Dan (Twitter, Google+) is TechRadar's Former Deputy Editor and is now in charge at our sister site Covering all things computing, internet and mobile he's a seasoned regular at major tech shows such as CES, IFA and Mobile World Congress. Dan has also been a tech expert for many outlets including BBC Radio 4, 5Live and the World Service, The Sun and ITV News.