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WiMAX Delayed and Discarded at CTIA

CTIA Wireless is the major event for the cellular industry, but the show came and went with no big news from Sprint on WiMAX. In spite of Hesse's optimistic plug for WiMAX during the keynote on Monday, the only thing Sprint had to announce were additions to the "WiMAX Ecosystem"; that means more gadgets to connect to the network that doesn't exist. By week's end, Sprint was disclosing to reporters that Xohm would not meet itsplanned April rollout date. That means we can probably forget about their earlier promise to cover 100 million people by the end of 2008.

Sprint spokesman James Fisher noted, "The change in rollout is not related to the technology." There were random reports about problems securing backhaul facilities, and a possible shift in direction to femtocells, but it sounded like Sprint was purposely muddying the waters. So our hopes of a real alternative to cellular for wide area wireless service in the US seem to be dimming by the hour.

If that wasn't enough bad news on the WiMAX front, Australian carrier Buzz Broadband, one of the first carriers to deploy a network that would be based on WiMAX-certified equipment, trashed the technology in a presentation at the WiMAX World Asia 2008 conference in Bangkok. Garth Freeman, Buzz's CEO, blasted the technology for failing to deliver the service it promised and being "mired in opportunistic hype." Non-line-of-sight (NLOS) performance was "non-existent" beyond two kilometers, indoor performance decayed at just 400 meters, and latency climbed to 1 second, making the technology unusable for VoIP. Freeman said his company is ditching WiMAX and will be replacing it with other wireless technologies. Buzz's equipment supplier, Airspan, countered that Buzz had bought their shorter-range, lower-cost product line.

Toward the close of the CTIA Wireless show, the FCC gag order came off, and the winners of the 700 MHz frequency auctions were free to describe their plans for service in the spectrum they acquired. Not surprisingly, the two major winners, Verizon and AT&T, are both looking at deploying services based on the Long Term Evolution (LTE), the cellular 4G standard. Neither vision included any mention of WiMAX. They did make it clear that we should not be anticipating any new services before 2010, and given the wireless industry's track record regarding new service rollouts, you can safely tack two or three years onto that prediction.

The most interesting comment came from AT&T Wireless' CEO Ralph de la Vaga, who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that the spectrum AT&T acquired was more valuable as it was "not encumbered" by open platform conditions like the C Block frequencies that Verizon bought; that jibes with the observation I made regarding spectrum valuation. So it appears that the cellular carriers will bring their penchant for "walled garden" wireless solutions into the fourth generation, and that does not bode well for flexible mobile unified communications.