Tales In Tech History: WiMax

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

In the years before LTE and fixed line fibre became the norm, WiMax was touted as the UK’s connectivity solution

Tech veterans of a certain age will remember the fact that WiMax networks were up and running in the United Kingdom and the United States in real world situations, long before LTE arrived on the scene.

Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax) was touted as the way ahead before superfast broadband became a daily reality for UK residents thanks to the nationwide deployment of fibre cabling.

But where did it all go wrong for WiMax?

Why did such an established technology that was deployed in commercial networks around the world, and was a serious contender to be the technology of choice for 4G, just wither and die? Read on to find out.

Wi-Fi On Steroids

WiMax was sometimes referred to as “Wi-Fi on steroids” and it was used for a number of applications including broadband connections, cellular backhaul, hotspots, etc.

It was similar to long-range Wi-Fi in some respects, but it could enable usage at much greater distances.

This meant that WiMax, for a time at least, was considered to be a genuine replacement for the traditional landline (cable or DSL service), as it could be deployed either at home or office, or could provide mobile Internet access across entire cities (or indeed countries).

And it should be remembered that a WiMax network could be deployed at relatively low costs in comparison with 3G, HSDPA, xDSL etc. This meant that WiMax was considered economically viable to provide last-mile broadband Internet access in remote locations.

But what exactly was WiMax?

Well, it is a family of wireless communication standards based on the IEEE 802.16 set of standards.

It actually dates back seventeen years to 2001, when the “WiMax” named was created by the WiMax Forum (formed in June 2001) to promote conformity and interoperability of the standard.

The original IEEE 802.16 standard was first published in 2001, and it was initially designed to provide 30 to 40 megabit-per-second data rates.

This standard was amended in 2005 to the 802.16e standard (called “Fixed WiMax”), and the WiBro service in South Korea was launched in 2005. It used IEEE 802.16e and was able to offer a staggering 25Mbps (an amazing speed for the time). This allowed for video conferencing, HD video streaming etc.

The 2011 update (802.16m or Mobile WiMax) even allowed for up to 1 Gbit/s for fixed stations.

Mobile WiMax was intended as a replacement for cellular phone technologies such as GSM and CDMA, or it was used as an overlay to increase capacity.

Fixed WiMax was also considered as a wireless backhaul technology for 2G, 3G, and 4G networks in both developed and developing nations.

Doomed To Fail?

But WiMax was facing a challenge. Despite it being first to market and having operational networks in the US with companies such as Clearwire, as well as a couple of trial networks in the UK, WiMax did have some challenges to overcome.

Between 2005 and 2010, WiMax networks had begun appearing around the world. But by 2010 the tide was starting to turn against WiMax as cellular operators opted not to invest in building WiMax networks, and instead waited for the arrival of LTE.

The LTE Standard had been finalised in December 2008, and the first commercial deployment of LTE was carried out by TeliaSonera in Oslo and Stockholm in December 2009.

And from 2010 onwards LTE began to be increasingly adopted by mobile carriers around the world, because in part to the greater financial returns it could offer.

But why did it fail?

Well Silicon put that very question to UK Broadband in 2012 and was told back then that WiMax was already a doomed technology.

UK Broadband, along with another firm Freedom4 (formerly Pipex Wireless) were the only two companies at that time which had the necessary spectrum to launch WiMax networks in the UK. UK Broadband had declined to invest in WiMax, leaving only Freedom4 to build a WiMax network in Milton Keynes and Stratford Upon Avon.

UK Broadband told Silicon UK six years ago that while it had owned the necessary spectrum for WiMax, the decision to unbundle the local loop (i.e. fixed-line broadband) made the firm realise that there was no way wireless providers could compete against an unregulated home broadband market.

4G Contender

It should be remembered that for a time, WiMax and LTE (Long Term Evolution) were locked in a battle to become the 4G standard for the world.

UK Broadband’s chief executive, Nicholas James told Silicon that even most WiMax backers, including Clearwire in the United States (which has already built WiMax networks in many US cities), had already signalled their intent to move across to LTE.

James explained it was never cost effective for WiMax networks to compete effectively against fixed-line broadband networks, and that WiMax was never a long-term solution.

WiMax, he felt, just couldn’t compete in a competitive environment with multiple operators, unbundled local loop etc, and a wireless technology just couldn’t complete against fixed-line.

“The problem with WiMax was the time it took to go mobile,” said James. He said that the WiMax IEEE 802.16e (fixed WiMax) standard has been around for years, but the mobile option (16m) had arrived a bit too late.

According to him, mobile operators had recognised that mobile connectivity was the future, not a fixed wireless option, and hence they opted for LTE.

“What happened was that LTE came along early enough so that all operators adopted it,” said James in 2012. “No one adopted 16m because there were no economies of scale. Indeed, all WiMax operators have signalled they will move to LTE.”

In Conclusion

James had one viewpoint for the failure of WiMax. Another possible reason for WiMax’s failure was compatibility.

Although LTE arrived much later than WiMax, it was actually just an upgrade to existing networks. WiMax on the other hand was a brand new technology, and mobile operators who had already spend huge sums of money on 3G networks, were wary of investing heavily in a brand new technology.

Most decided to wait until LTE was ready.

Some may lament the fact, but they should take comfort in the fact that WiMax was a great technology. It offered incredible speeds (at the time) in a mobile environment, and it pioneered a lot of technologies such as MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output); Space-Time Frequency Coding etc.

But thanks to its later arrival, LTE was able to incorporate some of those technologies into its standard.

WiMax was a classic example of a technology doing a lot of things right, and despite it being the first in the market, it failed to capture the 4G crown, leaving LTE to win the day.