Wireless Broadband Battle Royale -- Will Anyone Survive?
By Mike Masnick, Thu Nov 25 00:30:00 GMT 2004

There are a lot of different wireless broadband technologies out there, but rather than figuring out how they can be used to better serve customers, it appears we're descending into a name calling frenzy.


WiMAX backlash is nothing new. While WiMAX hype (mostly pushed by Intel) has given the press plenty to write about, there's been an undercurrent of de-hyping going on among those who will likely make decisions concerning wireless broadband technologies. WiMAX clearly has its problems from technology to legal issues to questions about its ability to actually meet customer demand for mobility.

This week, plenty of people are talking about Robert Berger's deconstruction of WiMAX, as if it's the final dagger in the heart of the WiMAX monster. Berger makes some very good points concerning where WiMAX has been oversold and overhyped. It's not mobile, and won't be for some time (if ever). The claims about WiMAX's capabilities have been misleading -- often on purpose. The range, the ability to do non-line-of-sight networking and the ability to make use of unlicensed spectrum aren't quite as impressive as some would have you believe. There are tradeoffs, and not much is going to be done in the short term with unlicensed spectrum and WiMAX. On the licensed side, there's only a limited amount of spectrum and it's owned by just a few companies. None of this is all that new -- but it is an excellent summary of many of the shortcomings of WiMAX for those who think it's the second coming of, well, Wi-Fi.

However, Berger also claims that Wi-Fi will "out evolve" WiMAX and remain the dominant wireless broadband connectivity choice of the next generation. Again, this isn't an entirely new idea. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley made essentially the same argument from a market perspective, rather than a technology one. Of course, this presents a lot of problems too. For all the "evolving" Wi-Fi may be doing, turning the technology into a wide area solution isn't a major focus. There are some mesh offerings, but they tend to be proprietary and run into some difficulties when companies try to turn them into serious wide-area solutions. Wi-Fi simply is not a wide-area solution, and it's going to have to do a lot of "evolving" to get there. In fact, Sam Churchill has already responded to Berger's dismantling of WiMAX by showing all of the areas where WiMAX will leave Wi-Fi in the dust when it's eventually available.

Meanwhile, there are still other solutions, such as Flarion's FLASH-OFDM, IP Wireless' UMTS TDD and standard 3G technologies such as UMTS and EV-DO, along with the next generations of all of these technologies. Each one has a serious weakness. Every report claiming that a particular solution is "the answer" to wireless broadband is wrong. Someone, somewhere has very good reasons why that particular technology can't handle everything it needs to, whether it's because of latency, mobility, complexity, price or something else entirely.

This is the point where it pays to remember that all of these technologies are being created for specific purposes and specific markets. Wi-Fi is a local area technology. The first version of WiMAX is a backhaul technology. 3G is an upgrade to cellular technology. There are ways to shoehorn other things into each of these -- and you can bet that someone, somewhere is trying to do so. However, anyone who thinks that any of these technologies automatically beats the others into a pulp because it can or can't do one particular thing is focusing on too small a picture. All of these technologies will evolve over time, and some will eventually out-evolve others. However, before we're crowning kings or writing off challengers, perhaps we should see what the technologies can actually do, and how the market feels about them. There's nothing wrong with being skeptical or pointing out the areas where one technology may be lacking, but the only thing that's certain is that none of the technologies on the market today, or in the near future, is the perfect wireless broadband technology for everyone. Instead of focusing on why one particular technology is better or worse than others, why not focus on figuring out ways to actually make the technologies available and useful to customers with compelling applications and services? Then you can start to judge which wireless technologies really make sense. The "this vs. that" technology stories may sell newspapers, but it doesn't do much to serve the people who actually use the technology.