Intel and Motorola have dramatically upped the mobile WiMAX ante. Last month — through their respective venture capital arms — they invested a jaw-dropping total of US$900 m in Clearwire, a US-based wireless broadband provider. Clearwire intends to use the cash to deploy wireless networks based on the 802.16e ‘standard’ — the mobile version of WiMax — in both the US and Europe.

Only weeks prior to Clearwire’s cash injection, Pakistan’s Wateen Telecom — part of Warid Telecom International — declared at the WiMax World Europe event that it had selected Motorola as the primary supplier for the deployment of a nationwide WiMax network. Using Motorola’s 802.16ebased MOTOwi4 kit, Wateen Telecom claims that the network rollout — which is scheduled to be complete by the end of this year — could well be the single largest WiMAX deployment in the world to date. The operator’s aim is to have coverage in 22 cities and serve over one million customers with a range of voice, internet, data and value-added services.

So, does all this 802.16e activity — albeit on a pre-certification basis — herald the beginning of a successful mobile WiMAX era?

Julien Grivolas, an analyst with Ovum, is not overly optimistic that standalone mobile WiMAX players will win through, particularly if they choose a head-on battle with the cellular players. “They will be fighting against mobile operators with established technologies and more choice in terms of suppliers,” he says. “It will also be hard to provide nationwide coverage from day one — they will have to establish roaming agreements and have handsets that support hand-off between the two technologies.”

The prospect of a prolonged standardisation process is also a clear threat to the 802.16e WiMax business case. Although vendors have begun to manufacture the chipsets and test equipment, the CPEs have yet to be certified. Proprietary solutions drive up costs.

“If you’re in a market situation that says you can wait for a year or a year and a half, then potentially 802.16e is the way to go,” says Amrish Kacker, a senior consultant with Analysys. “But if you need something now then you probably don’t have an option, because 802.16e doesn’t exist apart from in proprietary solutions that are just coming out of labs.”

What’s more, if WiMax operators are determined to slug it out in the mobile arena, they will have to steel themselves for a potentially bruising encounter with the regulatory authorities. At the moment, most European regulators have reserved the 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz spectrum bands — which, along with 3.5GHz, are considered the most promising frequencies for 802.16e — for 3G operators.

However, there are signs that the regulatory situation could change. The EU commissioner Viviane Reding called last month for a ‘technology-agnostic’ system across Europe that would allow operators to use any wireless technology within these previously protected bands.

But the key strength of mobile WiMAX may well not be in mobile at all. Some see its greatest attraction as being a better version of 802.16d, or fixed WiMax, which was designed as a DSL replacement technology. 802.16e has a wider range and the smart-antenna technology gives vastly improved inbuilding coverage than 802.16d.

The problem for operators that have already deployed fixed WiMax is that the option of upgrading is not necessarily a given. “Some of the vendors say that you can, but I suspect that in any upgrade you make the equipment sub-optimal,” says Kacker. “It would most likely get messy.”

Another scenario for WiMax is to see it as the ultimate replacement for WiFi. But even here it may struggle to compete directly, considering WiFi’s ubiquity and the possibility that it will continue to provide superior in-building performance than either 802.16d or 802.16e.

“WiFi is mature today and is only now gaining traction in the market,” says Kacker. “I still think you’re looking at three to five years before mobile WiMax becomes really mainstream in terms of availability and devices.”

Kacker believes that 802.16e is more likely to complement WiFi than compete with it. In some cases, of course, the fixed version is already being used by local WiFi hotspots for the backhaul.