Three sweet new Sprint 4G smartphones weren't loud enough to drown out the death rattle of WiMAX. From promising beginnings, the original mobile broadband standard now falls back on all sides before the onslaught of LTE. It's always fascinating to watch a format war unfold- especially when you have the perspective to appreciate it.
The First to 4G:
The current WiMAX standard was determined in December of 2005. Its proper name is, "802.16-2004 as amended by 802.16e-2005". I'm sure it won't mind if you shorten that to "802.16e-2005". As originally conceived, WiMAX was an alternative wire-free broadband service. It was thought to be more durable in a disaster and easier to install in areas with little cable infrastructure. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake, WiMAX was the only mobile Internet connection left standing.
Above: A WiMAX precursor on what appears to be a viking town hall.
It seemed WiMAX finally won its big break in April of 2007, when Intel pulled back from 3G in favor of the superior range and speed the new 4G standard promised. For a brief span, Intel became WiMAX evangelists. They were so effective, the Taiwanese government decided to pump an (estimated) 200 million dollars into developing a national mobile broadband network. Taiwan became the world's biggest WiMAX fan. Today, some 80% of all WiMAX devices are manufactured in the country.
More good news came in May of 2008, when Google, Intel, Sprint, Comcast, Bright House and Time Warner put together 120 MHz of spectrum and merged it with ClearWire, creating Clear. The WiMAX service we (I) know and love today. Clear wasn't the first 4G service to host a smartphone, though. That honor goes to the Russian carrier Yota- they launched the HTC Max 4G in November of 2008.
The High Water Mark:
By October, 2010, the WiMAX Forum claimed there were 592 fixed and mobile WiMAX networks, spread out over 148 countries. Viewed one way, the narrative is simple from here on out. Verizon unveiled their LTE service on December 5th and its wild popularity kicked off the decline of the "other" 4G standard.
But WiMAX was already starting to unravel as early as May of that year. Yota, then the world's largest WiMAX network announced that they would begin the process of switching to LTE. After throwing more than half a billion dollars into WiMAX, the company decided an additional $1.8 billion in LTE development would be a wiser course.
In July, Intel pulled their WiMAX office out of Taiwan. This immediately sparked rumors that the company planned to abandon the mobile standard and leave Taiwan high-and-dry. Think Phil Hartman's character in the Monorail episode of The Simpsons. Intel promised that they were only closing the office because that phase of their plan was now complete. The stock of tech companies involved in WiMAX continued to plummet despite Intel's assurances of support.
And their many lavish musical numbers.
“From Intel’s perspective, they may think that if they cannot grab 80 or 90 per cent of market share, then they are not in the mainstream market and so they would not be interested in this field."
The Long, Slow Slide:
In February, news broke that Sprint was evaluating a switch from WiMAX to LTE. They weren't alone. In fact, the most recent WiMAX directory shows that many of the 364 functioning WiMAX operators are considering the switch to LTE.
"There are also instances of WiMAX operators having crossed over to LTE with minimal hassle compared to a completely new network launch."
This highlights one of three key factors that lead to the downfall of WiMAX. The first has to do with spectrum. Initially, WiMAX used Time Division Multiplexing spectrum while LTE used Frequency Division Duplexing spectrum. You don't need to know what those are- the important thing is that SOME countries have the first type of spectrum and some the other. It was thought this meant that two standards- LTE and WiMAX, would be needed to serve the whole world.
But then came TD-LTE, pushed originally in China but growing more popular across the world. Clearwire is even busy creating a TD-LTE profile for their 2.5 GHz band.
The second key factor was industry support. As Siegmund Redt of Altair Semiconductor told me, "What we see today with LTE is the world converging on single standards. LTE is international as no other standard before. LTE is going to be the common denominator of mobile technology in the future."
And the third precursor to WiMAX's fall (touched on above) was a sharp decline in the cost necessary to switch a WiMAX network over to LTE. Both standards have an 80% overlap in technology. Which is why, as the Directory puts it, "virtually all" WiMAX operators are "exploring the opportunities" of LTE.
The Living End:
In October of 2010, it was estimated that there would be 59 million WiMAX subscribers in 2015. This now seems wildly optimistic, but it is equally unlikely that the 4G standard will just shrivel up and dry. Even respectable 09-10 user growth wasn't enough to convince Cisco to stop selling WiMAX base stations.
2010 ended with around 13 million WiMAX subscribers. We're likely to look back on that as the high point of WiMAX. It's all downhill from here.