Intel and the WiMAX community may stick to their party line that WiMAX will complement cellular networks rather than challenge them, but the chief 802.16e flagwaver continually highlights areas where it claims its favorite platform can beat HSPA and even LTE hands-down. These are increasingly not directly about technology - given the similarities to LTE, those arguments are now only for teccies - but about the surrounding processes and business models. First there were the claims that royalties would be low or even non-existent in handsets; then that WiMAX would drive down cost per Mbps to a level undreamed-of by mobile operators. Now the focus is on time to market for devices, with Intel claiming the certification process for WiMAX will enable products to get to users in one-third of the time it takes on a 3G network, enhancing ROI, flexibility in service launches, and user satisfaction.
This may sound ironic, given that the chief complaint of early would-be WiMAX operators, at least beyond the simple access market, is that usable and affordable devices are largely unavailable or delayed. Even in the laptop, expected to be the early driver of WiMAX services uptake in developed economies, there have been delays in certification of chips and dongles, and even Intel pushing out its deadlines for the WiMAX enabled Centrino. As for handsets and media devices, there are very few on the table, even though much of the success of any advanced mobile service launch relies on a good choice of attractive handsets (as the European 3G experience made bitterly clear in the early part of the decade). Currently there is a debate over which is the more concerning for US WiMAX - potential delays in the clearing of the Sprint Xohm/Clearwire venture, or potential non-appearance of fully certified handsets. The likelihood of both hitting their targets seems remote.
But Intel has always been good at outlining the vision of how WiMAX could - and in some markets probably will - revolutionize mobile broadband processes and norms; while sometimes glossing over short to medium term hitches and frustrations. So amid continuing criticism of the slow pace of the 802.16e wave two certification processes, Prakash Kripalani, an executive in Intel's WiMAX Ecosystem Group, told the chip giant's Developer Conference last week that 802.16e will cut the time to certify a device for an operator's network from between 10 and 14 weeks in 3G, to an average of 4-5 weeks.
In today's cellular networks, he explained, it typically takes 6-8 weeks for a carrier to certify a handset or other device for use on its network and an additional 4-6 weeks to finally approve it for sale. WiMAX will have a smoother time because the Forum will take a major coordinating role in approving components and devices, doing a lot of the operator's legwork in advance and across all networks.
Device makers have often blamed slow carrier approval processes - and the fact that each carrier has a different approach - for product delays and for a bottleneck in releasing attractive products to users. The approval process will be significantly different for Mobile WiMAX, according to Intel, and will be modelled on the system adopted by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which cuts out a large amount of duplicated effort by carriers. This will also be better suited to the open access and consumer electronics worlds, where WiMAX hopes to make a major impact, and where users will be bringing their own devices to a network without going through the operator first in any complex manner.
With the WiMAX world gearing up for the launch of its flagship 'new Clearwire' service, Intel is going an extra step for Sprint and Clearwire. For devices aimed at Sprint Nextel's WiMAX network, which will go live from next month in advance of merger with Clearwire, Intel will 'pre-certify' communications modules to smooth their path through Forum certification (a tactic it has also used in Wi-Fi when official processes were seen as holding up the market). This will be criticized by some as another short cut that threatens to sacrifice full interoperability and industry standards processes in order to rush out the Sprint and Clearwire launches. However, what WiMAX needs now are working, attractive devices to lure users and quieten some of its naysayers, so few commercial players are likely to oppose any move that helps achieve that in the high profile US market.
The earliest tests of mobile modules at the Forum have taken about four weeks, including one-time troubleshooting, Kripalani said, and the total time to get a module ready for the Sprint network is 6-8 weeks, which will be halved very quickly as the partners gain experience. For the next year or so, Sprint will continue testing new devices itself, but then plans to rely mainly on the Forum for testing, a move that Intel hopes will be emulated by other carriers, and which could ultimately reduce approval time to 3-4 weeks, depending on the type of device.
As for Sprint's commercial launch of Xohm, which has been trialling in several cities, it hopes to have the Nokia tablet approved, and also several laptops and USB dongles. The network is scheduled to launch first in Baltimore, then in Washington, DC, and Chicago, by the end of this year. In 2009, it will launch in Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, and Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Clearwire expects to launch Mobile WiMAX in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, Oregon, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, by year end, in addition to its widespread installation of pre-WiMAX NextNet services.