When Wal-Mart Offers WiMAX... Watch Out?
By Mike Masnick, Tue Aug 10 01:30:00 GMT 2004

If Starbucks and Panera can offer Wi-Fi hotspots, what's to stop a nationwide chain like Wal-Mart from offering WiMAX? Plenty, actually.

Wal-Mart has been receiving plenty of attention lately for its well-publicized attempts to push suppliers to use RFIDs as a way of better, more cost-effectively, tracking some of the most tracked inventory on earth. While the initial implementations have hit a few snags, few doubt that Wal-Mart will get it right at some point.

However, what if Wal-Mart were to take its near ubiquitous presence in the United States (and, increasingly around the world) and offer something a bit more? It's clearly idle speculation right now, but over at the Institute for the Future, someone is wondering what happens when Wal-Mart decides to offer WiMAX? The post there points to more speculation about this possibility, that paints a picture of WiMAX wiping out the entire telecom industry. The suggestion is that with so many people within 30 miles of a Wal-Mart, it wouldn't be hard to drop a WiMAX base station on top of every store, and supply a free modem with any purchase over $200. Add to that a simple VoIP system and some video-over-IP technology, and suddenly Wal-Mart has the potential to route around the entire telecom industry (if you ignore the backhaul bandwidth it would need to get from the store to the backbone, but, those are just details).

It's a scenario that certainly might make you sit up and pay attention. It's also unlikely to happen any time soon. WiMAX, of course, is still further off than the press would have you believe -- especially since many in the press seem to believe WiMAX is already available. It's also likely to face some technical hurdles and hiccups early on (what wireless technology hasn't?), so the idea of Wal-Mart suddenly offering such widespread, high speed coverage seems a bit far-fetched in the short-term. However, this is the Institute for the Future talking, so you have to imagine its horizons are stretched a bit further.

Still, the Wal-Mart offering WiMAX scenario may be tricky. Selling goods at "everyday low prices" by squeezing the margins out of your suppliers is one thing. Operating a technology service that people rely on to never go down and never have problems is quite another. If Wal-Mart aims for "everyday low broadband, telephone and video prices" it might find that maintenance and customer support costs are quite a pain. Also, in targeting the Wal-Mart customer, it would clearly be going past the tech savvy early adopter to the "average consumer" who won't necessarily want to bother with a new and confusing technology.

With all that said, however, the idea is still worth thinking about just to understand the possibilities of routing around the traditional players. With national chains lighting up Wi-Fi hotspots as fast as they can, it's not impossible to see them jump into offering WiMAX zones as well. However, for the most part, it seems more likely that these would be offered under a similar virtual network operator model, where the chain in question is really just supplying the brand (and, perhaps, the location for the base station) while the real service is operated by a company more used to offering these types of services. This is something already showing up in the Wi-Fi hotspot model with the likes of Wayport. If that's the case, though, the companies like Wal-Mart will need to consider if the synergy is really there for them to share their brand. If you received Wal-Mart broadband, TV and telephone at home, would it necessarily make you any more likely to shop at Wal-Mart? Obviously, there could be tie-ins and promotions to help promote the stores, but right now, it looks like Wal-Mart has its hands full figuring out how much longer to put off getting all its suppliers on board with its RFID program. Wal-Mart offering WiMAX is a nice idea, but don't sit around waiting for it any time soon.