The key advantage that WiMAX has always had over LTE, in the race to be mobile broadband top dog, has been its headstart of around two years, but even as the community gathered for a WiMAX Forum conference in Amsterdam last week, there were warning signs that this advantage was being gradually whittled away. Indeed, one market report warned that, unless spectrum auctions and commercial roll-outs of certified Mobile WiMAX networks gathered momentum before the end of this year, the market potential in mobile broadband would be "insignificant," and 802.16 will be confined to fixed services.

The analysts at Frost & Sullivan highlight issues that even the WiMAX community itself is raising. These include increasing uptake of 3G/Wi-Fi handsets and laptops, making WiMAX less attractive, especially once MIMO-enabled 802.11n is mainstream; uncertainties over IPR licensing; the accelerating pace of LTE development; and delays in wave two certification. The report also questions whether WiMAX can handle voice/data as effectively as HSPA, or whether it can hand off to 3G efficiently, if it cannot, whether users will be prepared to carry two devices, one for cellular voice and one for WiMAX personal broadband.

Those that favor LTE — rather than WiMAX or a converged standard — for mobile "4G" managed to steal the limelight rather effectively from the Forum's announcement of the first certified equipment for the all-important wave two of its standard, the version most operators require. First the GSMA signed an important cooperation deal with the operator driven NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Network) Alliance — probably the most powerful body in defining commercial mobile broadband platforms. This focused on LTE integration with GSM and W-CDMA, a key area for existing mobile operators and one in which WiMAX will find it hard to keep up. This was swiftly followed by the first framework for LTE interoperability testing and certification, which should be in place by year end. The group of vendors and operators, under the auspices of the LSTI (LTE SAE Trial Initiative), has outlined its plans for cross-vendor device-to-network interoperability testing, setting the stage for roaming.

The initiative is developing a phased approach for validating LTE functionality and performing standards-based interoperability testing. The first step will define a common set of features for TDD and FDD equipment, a feature set definition that should be complete by the end of 2008 and will be followed by interoperability tests.

The initial interoperability tests will focus on basic connectivity and high speed data transmission, as well as some advanced features like high quality video. They are slated to start in the first quarter of 2009. In the meantime, the LTE group is looking for "consolidated 3GPP standards" and reduced LTE time to market. Members include Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Orange, NXP, Samsung, Nokia, Nokia Siemens, Qualcomm, Nortel, T-Mobile, Vodafone, ZTE, Agilent, China Mobile, Huawei, LG Electronics, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Rohde & Schwarz, Signalion, Telecom Italia and Telefonica.

All this, especially the explicit focus on a harmonized TDD/FDD test bed, suggests that, if there is a serious bid to include WiMAX in the 3GPP set of standards, perhaps as the TDD element of the LTE platform, the moves need to be made quickly. Proof of concept work, already underway, started with FDD but LSTI is now also developing the proof of concept validation for the TDD version, which has been heavily influenced by Chinese technology and Ericsson.

Though there may still be delays to this roadmap, the rapid fire announcements contrasted sadly with the history of delays in 802.16e WiMAX certification — even in Amsterdam, the good news of the first approved kit was still dogged by vendor complaints that only a subset of tests, inadequate for most operators, had been used, in a bid to speed up the first phase of the process. The other area where WiMAX has suffered more delays than were predicted in the early years is allocation of spectrum. Some major auctions, where WiMAX vendors hope to score, notably the UK's 2.6GHz sale, have been delayed, making the playing field with LTE ever more level. And even in 3.5GHz, a band where WiMAX does rule supreme, the initial goldrush for spectrum in Europe and elsewhere — following a host of auctions in the past few years — has not translated as quickly into equipment sales as might have been expected. Some operators, like UK Broadband, have scaled back their initial bullish roll-out plans to pursue a more cautious agenda; others have failed to activate their spectrum at all.

For example, in France, which has been held up as one of the most promising 3.5GHz markets in western Europe — always a difficult territory for WiMAX — is now apparently hitting roadblocks. The regulator, Arcep, said last week that it would investigate the progress of operators that acquired 44 regional 3.5GHz licenses two years ago, as some may not be meeting their roll-out obligations — and could then face suspension of the license, or a fine equal to 3 percent of revenue. Two years after the auctions, a national network has yet to be launched, and only limited WiMAX activity has been reported on a regional basis.

Arcep's announcement at least spurred some operators into action: it was followed by statements from the country's two largest WiMAX licensees, SHD and TDF/HDDR. SHD (Société Haut Débit), jointly owned by cellco SFR and telco Neuf Cegetel, announced a virtual network operator agreement with the regional broadband group Numéo, covering the Ile-de-France region around Paris and the center, and the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region in the south. This will allow Numéo to bundle WiMAX services in regions where it cannot provide ADSL. The company has become a significant provider of rural internet access over the past four years, and is well positioned to become the largest provider of rural WiMAX services by the end of this year. It already has similar agreements with the other main WiMAX spectrum owners, HDRR and Altitude/Iliad. These cover the cities of Loiret, Seine-et-Marne and Quimper, and an additional eight regions are expected to follow. Meanwhile, Bolloré Telecom announced it would acquire eight WiMAX licenses from the HDRR consortium controlled by TDF. Bolloré (90 percent owned by Group Bolloré and 10 percent by Hub Telecom, a subsidiary of Aeroports de Paris) will pay "several million euros" for the licenses, and the deal will include several networks that already have been deployed. HDRR paid a total of €3.4m for its 10 licenses in 2006.

Bolloré CEO Marc Taieb told French newspapers: "We needed these eight licences — as well as the 12 we currently have — to roll-out a national network and launch a wireless broadband internet offering across the country". In 2006 Bolloré was awarded 12 licenses, for which it paid €78m.

Assuming regulatory approval of the HDDR transfer, Bolloré would have licenses for 20 regions, covering the majority of France, but so far it has delayed putting a date on its commercial launch, one of the factors that has prompted Arcep's probe. The operator blames the lack of certified equipment for 802.16e wave two, although it did carry out extensive testing of pre-certified gear in Paris and its surrounding areas last year.

All these trends raise question marks over how much market share WiMAX will be able to amass in markets that are traditionally the preserve of 3GPP technologies — fully mobile or voice oriented services, or western Europe, for instance. Not that this spells failure for the technology. It may well still be harmonized with LTE at some stage, creating an unbeatable unified platform for mobile broadband across both TDD and FDD spectrum and most global regions. It will certainly provide a strong technology to meet the rising worldwide demand for fixed and nomadic broadband networks, as an alternative to DSL or fiber in developing economies or rural regions. And while Frost & Sullivan may be negative about WiMAX' chances in mobile broadband, it shares Rethink Research's own view that there will be massive opportunities in Asia-Pacific, mainly for broadband access in underserved communities, but also in some of the new breed of multimedia devices emerging in markets like Korea.

Recent F&S predictions say the Asia-Pacific region could have as many as 43m WiMAX subscribers by the end of 2013, although this forecast is dependent on uptake in China, at least in 3.5GHz, which is hardly a foregone conclusion given the Chinese attachment to its own technologies. The 43m figure would generate about $11bn a year in service provider revenues. According to WiMAX Forum president Ron Resnick, speaking in Amsterdam last week, there are now 305 WiMAX deployments (fixed and mobile) in 118 countries, a significant jump from the figure released in April, of 260 roll-outs in 110 countries. "WiMAX is here today and the number of deployments keeps on growing," Resnick said. "This is the year that WiMAX product shipments really take off. It reflects the growing recognition by operators that the WiMAX business model is viable."