A new report by Juniper Research calculates the number of mobile WiMAX subscribers will exceed 80 million by 2013. The biggest surge in growth, says the research firm, will happen after 2010. Juniper’s projections assume a wide range of attractive devices will be available on the market within three years (at competitive prices), and mobile WiMAX operators will achieve service differentiation from mobile operators.

“Mobile WiMAX will represent a single-digit proportion of the global mobile technology base by 2013,” says Howard Wilcox, author of the report entitled ‘Mobile WiMAX: Global Opportunities, Strategies & Forecasts (2007-2013)’. “This will be a tremendous achievement for this new technology platform, which has recently been boosted by the ITU’s endorsement of it as an IMT-2000 specification.”

Last October ITU announced IEEE 802.16 (WiMAX) as part of the IMT-2000 family and an official global 3G standard. This opens the door for many more operators to use mobile WiMAX (802.16e) within their IMT-2000 spectrum allocation (and gives the broadband wireless technology more credibility).

According to figures from the WiMAX Forum, WiMAX technology had the potential to reach 2.7 billion people before the ITU announcement. That number now rises to over 4 billion.

In terms of mobile WIMAX service revenue, Juniper anticipates this will grow to over US$23bn per annum worldwide by 2013. The top mobile WiMAX markets, says Juniper, will be the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

“How mobile WiMAX operators differentiate themselves from mobile operators is key,” adds Wilcox. “The HSPA camp would probably argue that mobile WiMAX operators can only do that on price, which would be difficult as flat-rate [3G] packages are coming onto the market for as little as €20 per month. I suspect that mobile WiMAX players will have to work closely with vendors to produce innovative and attractive devices to achieve differentiation, and exploit the fact that these can be used for mobile, fixed and nomadic use.”

Juniper’s mobile WiMAX subscriber projections were made before the announcement by Sprint and Clearwire that they had ripped up their LOI to coordinate a nationwide mobile WiMAX rollout across the U.S. (see Mobile WiMAX suffers U.S. setback). Wilcox does not believe the demise of this partnership will affect his numbers. “I still expect Sprint to go ahead with a national mobile WiMAX network,” he says.

According to Juniper there are now over 50 mobile WiMAX trials around the world. “The biggest thing that has happened to mobile WIMAX over the last year is that it has gone from being a technical specification to rollout,” says Wilcox. “Operators are taking it seriously.”

There is far from consensus in the analyst community, however, about the strength of the WiMAX business case. According to a report published last year by Arthur D Little, which compared such factors as cell radius size and modulation techniques between WiMAX and HSPA (an umbrella term for HSDPA and HSUPA), it found that in many cases WiMAX will have a capex disadvantage of 20-50 percent — without any speed advantage — compared with HSDPA (assuming the same size of coverage area as WiMAX).

The business case for mobile WIMAX using the 3.5 GHz standardized frequency band (as opposed to 2.5 GHz) appears more vulnerable to a capex showstopper: the higher the frequency, the shorter the signal distance, which means more base stations.

But the Juniper report, quoting research from Motorola, argues that the TCO (total cost of ownership) of a 3.5 GHz mobile WiMAX network will become similar to one using 2.5 GHz as demand on capacity increases over time. While a 3.5 GHz network will typically require around 30 percent more sites than 2.5 GHz for the equivalent geographical coverage, it also means that the 3.5 GHz network starts off with 30 percent more capacity than its 2.5 GHz counterpart. As a result, the 2.5 GHz network will require additional network build sooner to cope with growing data usage.