WiBro's 'Success' Not Boding Well For WiMax

from the ouch dept

Many people confuse the future with the present. For years, I’ve heard variations of the following phrase at numerous conferences and multiple articles: “Well WiMAX is here so it has a huge time to market advantage over -blank-.” The author or speaker usually then moves on to cite how WiBRO is entrenched in Korea, and Sprint will have Chicago and DC hooked up by end 2007, so WiMAX is here. Citing future dates, and using the present tense is a grade-school error, and the future has ways of making fools of soothsayers. The end of the year is fast approaching, and the news out of Sprint is about a failed partnership, not a pilot launch. Meanwhile, back in Korea, WiBRO is still faltering. WiBRO was a proprietary deviation of mobile WiMAX that the Korean government promoted because they didn’t want to wait for WiMAX, and they wanted to drive the standard by getting out of the gate early. But back in September 2006 after 3 months of service, the 2 WiBRO networks in Korea had attracted 479 and 15 subscribers. By February 2007 KT was up to 906 users while SK Telecom (a former employer of mine) was at 151. We joked that that represented a staggering 1,000% growth since September!

In the latest news out of Korea, Telecoms Korea reports that 17 months after launch, SKT’s WiBRO has fewer than 1,000 subscribers. What an abysmal record. Of course, it’s reminiscent of the early days of FOMA or of Hutch 3 UK. It’s tough to shoulder the growing pains of a new technology that was launched before its time. Arrows in the back are the common reward. The government is pressuring the carrier to continue deployment of the network to meet regulatory minima. SKT will respond by increasing the number of “Hotzones” from 56 in 23 cities to 100 in 42 cities, and will eventually upgrade to Wave 2 which should double speed and capacity. Of course, as is typical of WiMAX rhetoric, it’ll be hard to get clarity on whether they mean “double speed AND double capacity at the same time” or whether it really means “double speed and thereby double capacity”. WiMAX now may be entering the “trough of disillusionment,” but that doesn’t mean it’s dead in the water. If they can get the darned thing to work well, the global reference cases of WiBRO and Sprint’s Xohm will shine like a beacon. If they don’t get it to work in 2008, it’ll be more like bacon…fried.

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Comments on “WiBro's 'Success' Not Boding Well For WiMax”

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Tony says:

Maybe not dead yet

I think you may be discounting the ability for Cisco to have an impact on the adoption of WiMax. With their recent acquisition of Navini Networks they may have a huge opportunity to do so. Having worked for Navini (years ago when it was new) I have seen the promise of that proprietary solution. Since then Navini has been a huge influnce in the industry and still has the only beamforming base station antennas (which might well make the difference). That’s a really sweet and very effective solution. I know they have clients all over the world that are testing it out and I also know it’s very successful. Now that they have the deep pockets and QA provided by Cisco, and Cisco gets a product that’s already gotten alot of the bugs out, it may very well provide a platform that is capable of making WiMax a viable and affordable solution. Look for it in your neighborhood in 2008-2009. 🙂

Well, that may be a bit optimisic, but the point is with the synergy created by the acquisition, the market could actually start to move an a direction more amenable to the widespread adoption of WiMax or whatever WiMax morphs into.

But then, what do I know?

Shun says:

Why did it fail?

Specifically, we should be asking why did WiMax never even get off the ground? I would blame a combination of regulation and technology hurdles. Also, there seemed to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the part of vendors to push WiMax.

One problem: lack of universal spectrum allocation. Vendors do not want to create devices which transmit/receive in the 2.5GHz spectrum in one country, then re-engineer everything to fit a different spectrum allocation for another country. For one thing, it makes cross-border traffic hairy.

This issue could be solved by using software defined radios, as this article shows. So maybe the WiMax tech just wasn’t ready for prime time.

I think it had more to do with lackluster uptake by vendors. Vendors, with the notable exception of Intel, were happy to sit on their laurels and push 802.11g, pre-N, and Draft-N versions of the home wireless products. Nice try, folks, but that isn’t going to overthrow the telcos (not that telco liberation is a stated corporate goal of any wireless vendor). Also, one of the proponents of WiMax was Sprint, before their split with Clearwire. Makes you wonder if Sprint was in the game to slow everybody else down, or if they had a genuine interest in getting WiMax off the ground.

All in all, another day in the life of duopoly America. I think the reason WiBro was a non-starter in Korea is that South Korea already has the second fastest wired network in the world. They can’t complain that their incumbent is holding them back. North Korea, on the other hand…

Perhaps WiMax was another technology “solution looking for a problem” but it seemed like there were distinct problems that WiMax could have solved. Those WiMax demo projects that Intel sponsored seemed to emphasize that WiMax could be deployed, relatively cheaply, to remote isolated communities, or to link areas of hostile/rugged terrain. Indeed, WiMax could have piggybacked on the same towers used by mobile operators in the developing world. Maybe those mobile telco’s were jealous?

Well, it looks like Cisco might take up the banner, but if I were a betting man, and I believed WiMax had a future, I would only expect one company to really take WiMax out of the garage and deploy it across the U.S.: Google.

Tony says:

RE: Why did it fail?

Maybe, but Google doesn’t manufacture WiMax radios. It’s not likely that they would begin such an endeavor either. So that leaves 3rd party vendors. They already have a relationship with Cisco AND Cisco now has the best, most tested and reliable WiMax product available.

God, I sound like and advertisement. Blah! I actually dislike the people at Navini (save one), but the product is a fine one.

Glenn Fleishman (profile) says:

Some mischaracterizations?

I don’t want to sound like a WiBooster, but I think some of the characterizations of WiBro and WiMax are wrong.

* Sprint/Clearwire’s deal clearly couldn’t go forward with an interim head. Calling the deal’s failure to consummate a “failed partnership” overstates the situation, I fear. The most likely scenario is a new CEO of Sprint spins off 2.5 GHz licenses (or leases them) to a new firm that they have a majority stake in that merges with Clearwire with additional Intel investment.

* WiBro isn’t deployed like cellular or even Clearwire’s pre-WiMax Expedience. My understanding is that the low subscriber rate has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with the fact that the service is in limited zones, not across entire cities. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but the story you link to makes it sound as if it is. It’s hard to sell a ubiquitous service that’s in a limited area.

* The WiBro technology may have been a proprietary version of WiMax at one point, but the WiMax Forum states pretty clearly that WiBro is now encompassed inside a profile.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:


Hey, lots of people above taking my post, and saying “See, WiMAX is dead”. I’m pretty sure I just showed some serious glitches. I concluded with “If they can get the darned thing to work well, the global reference cases of WiBRO and Sprint’s Xohm will shine like a beacon…” And I really don’t know if they will succeed or not. I just know that they haven’t yet.

Glenn, I tend to agree with you on your bullet 1. See my third bullet at http://www.techdirt.com/blog/wireless/articles/20071009/132307.shtml

But I don’t agree with your second bullet. Every wireless solution needs to beat the chicken versus egg problem. But there has to be a reason that SKT and KTF both bid for the spectrum, yet are not competing to deploy faster than one another. With how great we’re told WiMAX is, and how the economies are *so* much better than cellular, what’s the hold-up?

And your third point is absolutely true. But joining a standards body with an incompatible version that is stamped “WiMAX” does not mean the WiBRO solution is compatible. It doesn’t matter unless they inter-operate and provide economies of scale in production. This is exactly like FOMA and W-CDMA when 3G was launched early in Japan.

Glenn Fleishman (profile) says:

Re: Response

Derek, I think we’re actually in accord on point 2: You’re talking about the deployment decision (why in god’s name did they get spectrum only to sit on it); I’m talking about how it’s not a reflection of market if they can’t seem to actually build the network. There’s the chicken and egg, of course: if the market were there, they’d build it out.

My take is that WiBro devices are too expensive and power hungry, and that the early gear being used in South Korea just doesn’t meet the spec. The stuff that’s starting to trickle out now and will be available in quantity in 2008 is more like what you need to make a real investment.

Or so I think.

Alaric says:

WiMAX doing okay. Intel's BS not so good.

One really can not judge the viability of a tech from a deployment that offers limited coverage especially when it competes with one of the best EV-DO networks on the planet.

Wibro and WiMAX have the same problems though. They will largely compete with very established networks and sometimes carriers (in the case of a greenfield wimax deployment) without really offering much of an improvement in economics or throughout unless accompanied by a vast amount of spectrum.

Sprint has a vast amount of spectrum but sprint has lots of other problems.

I’d furthermore note that WiMAX is doing pretty well in its pre intel BS application of fixed wireless.

gccambridge says:

Hmmm... Is all that bad?

According to KT, they have over 100,000 users to their WiBro network )end 2007) and are planning for more than 400,000 by the end of this year (as per Dr. Hyun Pyo Kim, director of WiBro planning for Korea Telecom).

In India, Telsima is deploying WiMAX in 250 cities (TATA and Reliance)… The Domincan Republic already has two commercial 802.16e networks (launched in October 07 and just last week) incumbent BB pricing has dropped more than 20% in response… The Philippines has seen SmartPLDT (largest mobile carrier in the country) pretty much stop spending on DSL infrastructure, putting their $ instead on a pre-WiMAX look a alike system (Moto Canopy actually), sub growth is exceeding their expectations and they now have more subs on it than DSL… I could keep going…

Sprint is only half (or not really even half) of the WiMAX story… The real story is emerging market and it is not “mobility” (for the time being that is) but all about having some level of broadband connectivity…

WiMAX is not “going to take over the world” and kick cellular out (3G, HSDPA, etc.) – not even close. The spend on WiMAX will be but a fraction. But the point is, the market is growing for real reasons based on un-hyped business cases that work – basic BB connectivity – rather than refrigerators with WiMAX chips in them…

As for Sprint… Ultimately, technology alone is not going to save them… It will take more than that…

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