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Ask Mr Operator: “When will WiMax become standard for carriers?”

Last week, I invited the Mobile Industry Review audience to pose questions to Mr Operator. For the benefit of those new to Mr Operator — the series is written by a chap working high up in one of the world’s international mobile operators. As such, Mr Operator has a rather unique perspective on the marketplace — in particular if you’re trying to pitch your company or service into an operator.

I was sent the following question from an avid reader who asked to remain anonymous. I knew Mr Operator wasn’t the biggest WiMax fan and I was expecting a 400 word reply from Mr Operator — but was quite staggered when a 2,500 discourse arrived in my inbox, with a follow-up addendum a few days later.

If you’re on the weekly newsletter distribution, you’ll have caught the first five paragraphs exclusively. I know there’s a lot of people who have been waiting for it, so here we go.

Mr Operator on WiMax:

– – – – –


“With Freedom4 covering Manchester with WiMAX and The Cloud spreading most of the City of London in WiFI, the writing is on the wall for mobile carriers. Surely it’s just a question of months and years before most of metropolitan Britain is served by infinitely better WiMAX services? When do you see carriers moving from a inane ‘cell’ infrastructure that simply can’t handle data (“7.2mbit per second from my Vodafone dongle, my arse!”) to a proper, sustainable and expandable offering based on the likes of WiMAX?”


When you strip away the polemic, what you have here are two questions:

[is it] just a question of months / years before most of metropolitan Britain is served by WiMAX services?


When do you see carriers moving from a ‘cell’ infrastructure to a sustainable and expandable offering based on the likes of WiMAX?

Upon first reading, my head was literally spinning. This had come from a MIR reader. I was – frankly – stunned that someone could string together such a ‘question’ and proffer it with the electronic equivalent of a straight face. Surely this is a wind-up?

But no, dear reader, in the interests of the mobile community, the investment houses and your elected representatives, we must delve into the murky, swirling trough of broken promises, fallen towers and lost dreams that is WiMax. Hold your nose, it’s going to get whiffy…

Firstly, some techno-babble. WiMax is an acronym for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. It has been around for some time, its first major standards incarnation appearing in 2001, the original idea coming out of a need to move beyond the frankly ridiculous proprietary situation of microwave network point-to-multipoint links that existed previously. No ISP wants to be tied into one vendor for a technology choice – the situation was akin to Vodafone buying a Nokia mobile network, then only being able to sell Nokia handsets to its customers. ISP’s wanted choice, and WiMax promised to deliver interoperability between vendors and therefore choice.

The frequency band this system was to occupy was 10-66GHz – many, many times higher than mobile – the system designed to work with large, fixed external antennas. It was – crucially – meant to be for Line-Of-Sight (LOS) use only. So if you wanted to buy broadband off your WiMax-toting ISP, you needed a man in a van to turn up and bolt what is essentially a satellite dish to your house, pointed at the ISP’s nearest POP (Point Of Presence – think the BT Tower, or your local telephone exchange building covered in dishes). This dish was plugged into a home unit, which you connected your PC to. Using what boffins call Really Big Antennas at the POP end, you could get pretty respectable speeds over these fixed LOS links. Maybe 10MBps or more. Over what people on foot call A Really Long Way – say 5-10 miles even. If you really wound the power up, and used dual REKAD’s (Really Enourmous Kick-Arse Dishes), plus all of your rather expensive 70MHz spectrum block, you might get 70MBps over 70 Miles (This “70/70/70” figure is oft-quoted, and is fine if your mobile phone has a 2.5m wide dish on the side). This is the sort of thing TV transmission firms and major ISP’s do for breakfast. So far, so 2003. And the Laws Of Physics are still intact.

Then the game changed – literally overnight in the usually geologically-paced world of technical standards. Someone, possibly drunk at the time, strung together the following: “Hey, if we make the frequency a lot lower, and cobble on a whole lot more stuff to try to improve the quality, and drop the range expectation, and the speed, and use smaller bits of spectrum, maybe we would have something that could be used instead of that globally-standardised, 2 billion subscriber-base 700 operator 300 vendor thing called, er, you know – mobile.”

Over at Intel, someone else (possibly at the same long lunch) piped up and said, “Great idea guys, here’s several Billion dollars, hop to it.” And lo, the WiMax hype machine was born. From the primordial ooze of telco sales pits they crawled, sloughing off their fixed-line skins, yellow eyes aglitter with the tinkle of VC cash, government grants, tax breaks, free spectrum and vendor largesse. Fleets of corporate jets were dispatched around the world, to emerging economies desperate to leapfrog the rather difficult and messy process of burying thousands of miles of expensive copper and fibre. Villages were visited, photos posed and backs slapped. Promises of digital salvation and transformed economies were made, and across the globe a million PowerPoints bulleted their soul-destroying way through what turned out to be what the common man calls, ‘A Load Of Bollocks’.

To say that WiMax has over promised and under delivered is to make the understatement of the technical millenia. Many years of wrangling and arguing among the partner companies, technical compromises, lawsuits, IPR spats, walkouts and downright lies has left the WiMax industry’s reputation in tatters. Apart from in the public eye, where punters are keen to believe anything, and where a snappy branding exercise and some well-chosen soundbites along the lines of ‘freedom’, ‘liberation’ etc go a long way in the minds of vote-hungry politicians keen to be seen to be sticking it to the big nasty MNO man.

But there’s a rather pesky technical fly in the WiMax salesman’s snake-oil. It’s called the Shannon Limit, and it has held true for the last sixty years. What Shannon tells us is that for a given radio channel (say, measured in MHz) there is an upper speed limit, beyond which all the bits start crashing into each other, get annoyed and generally do what technicians call Not Working Anymore. Anyone alive over the last twenty years has witnessed an amazing increase in radio data speeds. What was rocket science in 1988 is £10 a month in 2008. 10kbs to 1Mbs inside 10 years – that’s a hundred-fold increase in speed. And there are still more increases to come over the next few years, as ‘Turbo Codes’ bump 3G speeds ever closer to the 4G grail of 100Mbps to your handset. But we have pretty much hit the ropes, in the lab. Shannon’s limit still holds true, even though the data throughput boffins have crept within an electronic gnat’s testicle of it – 0.0045dB to be precise. The upshot of all this geekery is that there is no free lunch in the wireless world, no matter how many Intel invite you to.

And it’s Shannon’s Limit and the e-wizardry used to sneak up on it that we turn to for the technically damning response to the statement above that WiMax is “infinitely better” than mobile. Here’s the rub: they use THE SAME METHODS to deliver at the radio level. The modulation codes used in HSPA are the same as proposed to be used in ‘Mobile’ WiMax. This fact may be why Intel’s head of sales & marketing is now mooting a merger of the WiMax and LTE standards – having fumbled and failed to run away with the ball, they now want to play nicely, but with their IPR in the mix.

Moving on to the myth that WiMax provides better ‘coverage’ than 3G systems. This is like saying that one litre of Dulux’s new, improved WiMatte will ‘cover’ your entire house. Coverage costs. You need the coverage to soak in. You don’t want gaps. Coverage gaps equals unhappy customers perched on window ledges, scaring the neighbour’s cat. There’s a reason why you see mobile sites on every block in major urban areas – because houses are made of bricks and radio waves don’t like going through stuff. Especially at the very high frequencies WiMax uses in the UK – 3.5GHz to be precise, or nearly twice what 3G uses. Intel made a press pack with a cover picture of a pretty girl sitting on the steps of a New York Brownstone house, using what was supposed to be a WiMax-enabled laptop. This was a singular moment of honesty on their part – she needed to be outside, because it wouldn’t have worked inside.

The bugger of radio network planning is that for a given power level and speed, as you increase the frequency the range decreases. This means you need to build more sites to deliver the same quality of coverage. A 3.5GHz system like Freedom4’s requires nearly three times the number of sites that a 2.1GHz (read: HSPA / 3.5G) system does. Does that make economic sense? Their CEO doesn’t think so, hence his quote last October where he stated “We aren’t aiming for consumers…The industry would drive the price down to free.” No, the reality of Freedom4’s ‘coverage’ is that it’s a business-only proposition, and basically unless you live in a business park you’ll be out of luck. Blanket suburban indoor coverage it is not. And their indoor device isn’t even wireless. Hello RJ45 port, it’s been a while.

A big challenge for WiMax is that 90% of network costs are non-air interface related. Planning consent, property acquisition, power, rent, fabrication, support, marketing, backhaul – all these costs are common with mobile. So assuming you got your WiMax and spectrum kit completely free, you still need to fork out billions to get close to cover ‘most of metropolitan Britain’. And at currently allocated frequencies, you’ll be building 3-4 times the number of sites. Good luck with all those tinfoil-hatters then.

Regarding The Cloud and Municipal paid or free WiFi, I can do no better than point you to Google’s search results on the topic. And this steaming great cloud of FAIL is despite WiFi chipsets being in everything but the fridge. Er, OK, you used to be able to buy a WiFi fridge then. Even more reason to accept that even with WiFi devices everywhere, selling WiFi on the streets to the public is and will remain a niche of a niche. The people have spoken. For £10/month they want the data on their terms, in their location, not in some noisy rubbish takeaway joint full of yapping mums and screaming kids.

The design of cellular networks is required for capacity reasons. You can’t just shout from one tall tower in the middle of town, and WiMax has exactly the same ‘inane’ requirements as mobile does to deliver to a similar number of customers. There is nothing in WiMax’s ‘offering’ that says anything different, and anyone suggesting otherwise portrays a singular lack of understanding of WiMax. WiMax has evolved as a standard to explicitly support the cellular network topology as a means of handling data session handoff between, er, cells. This is what the WiMax cousin WiBro in Korea has demonstrated. Pity that after many hundreds of millions spent it’s only got a few hundred subscribers then.

So to revisit the questions:

[is it] just a question of months / years before most of metropolitan Britain is served by WiMAX services?

No – most of metropolitan Britain will never be served by WiMax. Every law of physics and economics tells us that. HSPA+ and then LTE will beat it to the punch, on the back of the massive existing 3G infrastructure investment. Think evolution, not revolution. Replacing a radio card in a 3G base station and tweaking your core network is much cheaper and faster than building the whole thing from scratch – which is what a WiMax operator needs to do.

When do you see carriers moving from a ‘cell’ infrastructure to a sustainable and expandable offering based on the likes of WiMAX?

Never. Because the cell infrastructure is the only sustainable, expandable way to grow delivery of wireless data. And because HSPA+ will appear as a consumer proposition in less than a year with minor hardware upgrades, delivering a realistic 3MBps to the handset/dongle. LTE will appear in another year, delivering an initial 5-fold increase on HSPA+. These improvements are not slideware – they are in pre-production testing at mobile network vendors now. Crucially, the major handset and card/dongle vendors have road mapped the devices that will deliver these speeds. At consumer price points, in the Cath Kidston print of your choice. What you will actually *do* with 15MBps to the phone is anyone’s guess. We know people don’t want to watch TV…

WiMax is 5 years late. Last year 3.5G woke up, got off its arse and slammed the window of opportunity closed tight.

::insert Forrest Gump voice here:: Sorry I had a reality check in the middle of your WiMax party….

Addendum: After writing the above, it struck me that one could take away from the piece the impression, maybe a hint – no, more of an inkling – that Mr Operator is somehow, in a certain light, “Anti-WiMax”. Let me assure you that I am no such thing.

Why, one might as well be anti-blue or cross about the way the tide comes in.

Let’s be crystal clear here: WiMax is a modulation scheme. It’s a way of encoding and decoding bits of information, fit to then fling through the air over some distance. It’s a good scheme. A lot of very talented people have poured a lot of effort into making it work. Into handover algorithms to ‘mobilise’ it. Into nascent QoS profiles so voice takes priority over, say, spam email.

All these things are admirable, necessary and will see WiMax as a perfectly usable technology.

Much like BetaMax was.

(In fact, BetaMax is technically better than VHS. It is still used in broadcast-quality devices – or was until digital came along).

The problem with WiMax, and critically *how it is sold*, is that it is basically no better than what we have now in HSPA, or what is planned for HSPA+ or LTE. It’s akin to your council being sold on the idea that beige concrete is the future, and that we should rip up all the grey stuff and start again (Actually….no, forget I mentioned it).

The reason why it has gained the status it has is purely down to one thing: Marketing. The pervasive force that surrounds us, infuses us, and makes us spend £1 for a bottle of stuff we get for free from the tap.

So when the question is posed, “When will Mobile operators drop 3G for WiMax?” or “When will startups blanket the country in WiMax?”, the lens you need to look through is one of a world where we have already spent many hundreds of Billions establishing wireless networks. That’s you and me, my friends. You have paid for the networks that now serve you. Your £30 a month has allowed mobile operators to re-invest in new sites, technologies, handsets, standards, spectrum licences, to the extent that it is possible to stream live Big Brother to your mobile while on the train at 80MPH. Just as well we have cancer and global warming licked eh? Back to the house….

So, where is the driver for a mobile operator like mine to switch to WiMax? Even if (and this is a huge IF) regulators approved the use of WiMax in 3G spectrum, even IF devices were available, even IF network hardware was there ready to deploy – if all these ducks lined up and quacked a veritable avian symphony – what would we have?

Would you have a faster 3G connection (all things coverage being equal)? No. The laws of physics and every major vendor’s results tell us this. Ericsson pulled out of WiMax a few years back, because they saw the writing on the wall. WiMax was just no better than 3G.

Would you have better mobile handoff, or international roaming? No. WiMax is currently a loooooong way behind the 3G curve on this one.

Would you have better coverage (all things tower/power/spectrum being equal)? No. Again, major vendor tests and the fundamental way electromagnetic waves propagate from A to B via C (the bricks in your house) (brbtell us this.

No, sadly, the WiMax Emperor wears the same clothes he always had.

If WiMax had come along 5 years ago, it would have been a lighthouse for Mobile operators struggling to right the shipwreck of 3G’s launch. But WiMax – and critically its mobile version – just didn’t arrive in time. HSPA and the roadmapped HSPA+ / LTE have stolen the show. Evolution, not revolution. Why tear apart what you have, when you can just bolt on some new cards? Why give customers ‘orphan’ handsets when they can have devices that are backward-compatible with legacy networks?

So when the WiMax salesman comes knocking with visions of cheap glory, you know it’s hollow. There’s no punch, no compelling reason to go his way. And don’t assume that big money is smart money. A few years ago a colleague did the rounds of VC firms, looking for cash to tie together all the disparate European WiFi networks under a common billing/login umbrella. Like what The Cloud has kind of become, except better, because the Cloud STILL does a rubbish job of managing users. Could he get the funds? I recall a figure of around €20 million, tops, to bring a massive boost to established infrastructure. But the response was “not interested”. No-one wanted to back a relatively small investment that would radically enhance the massive value of the sunk capital.

But here’s the killer……..they were more than willing to pony up much more cash to build a NEW WiFi network.

Sometimes, life (and investor logic) really beggars belief.

So where does WiMax fit? Where CAN it do well? The opportunity lies in places where broadband providers (mobile and fixed) are pillaging. Incumbent greed. Buy some spectrum, knock up a few cheap sites, bolt on a dish or two, and stream disgruntled customers some love. But that game lasts only as long as the incumbent decides not to respond. The moment you become annoying, wham! Down comes the incumbent’s price, maybe on a city-by-city basis if the regulator allows it. Bye-Bye WiMax startup.

For nations where 3G mobile broadband with its high QoS and device choice is already commoditised, WiMax has no place to play. Not because it’s inherently inferior, but because it doesn’t have anything to differentiate it except less choice in vendor/device, premature mobility & QoS standards, poorer performance in approved bands and the same cost base for infrastructure.

All it can do is play catch-up. And there’s precious little profit in being last to the party.

Stand by for an inevitable spin cycle from Intel 😉

– – – – –

Thank you, Mr Operator.

If you’d like to put a question to Mr Operator, simply email it over. We’ll do our best to turn it around quickly.


  1. Rather than just for data, time and again I hear of an African or Asian state being flogged WiMAX as some wonderful alternative to GSM (yes mobile phones using WiMAX!). Quite frankly how many mobiles has anyone seen with WiMAX inbuilt (though a very few do exist). What would in fact be the point of selling expensive WiMAX handsets into an underdeveloped country when GSM/3G handsets are so cheap and ubiquitous.

    WiMAX has gone the same way as Iridium (late to market, too much money spent and over taken by other technologies) so there is little chance that it will make much of an impact.

    Yet some say there may still be hope for WiMAX as a cheap backhaul when deploying new GSM/WCDMA networks in remote areas. Some also say that Intel can not, will not, let WiMAX fail.

  2. The funny thing about this is that it still needs to be said. People were claiming that Wifi would destroy 3G back in 2001 – it was a stupid idea then and it's still a stupid idea.

    On the other hand, fixed wimax is pretty decent as a last-mile solution in emerging markets – an alternative to copper for fixed connections.

  3. Superb Article Mr. Operater 🙂

    This kinda stuff should be on the National Curriculum !!

    Back in 1998 (As a young 10year old) I was working in a Bluetooth startup. I had previously worked in Motorola and had managed to get onto the Bluetooth SIG Marketing Evengelism team. What I witnessed back then was Intel's unbendable belief to get “their” standard out the door and their ability and willingness to throw money at it to ensure nobody else got into the race.

    All Intel are itnerested in is selling their chips and if they've pegged their colours to WiMax you can be sure they will throw money hand over fist at it to make sure that they sell those chips!

    Maybe they should just cut their losses and open a Fish'N Chip Shop 🙂

  4. Spot on Tim – the only financially-feasible use is the originally intended one – as vendor-neutral microwave backhaul. Bring on dem Gigabit Ethernet radio links – we're gonna need them all over the place come LTE time in 2010.

    WiMax's 'New Hope' is its raison d'etre.


  5. Development of digital technologies occurs prompt rates. Does not lag behind progress and digital TV. Speaking about digital TV, we first of all mean satellite TV. The digital satellite TV becomes more and more accessible to simple users. The market paid satellite tv also is not necessary on a place. The new digital standard of TV of high clearness HDTV actively develops and takes root. The satellite TV becomes more and more directed on the spectator. Besides

  6. Development of digital technologies occurs prompt rates. Does not lag behind progress and digital TV. Speaking about digital TV, we first of all mean satellite TV. The digital satellite TV becomes more and more accessible to simple users. The market paid satellite tv also is not necessary on a place. The new digital standard of TV of high clearness HDTV actively develops and takes root. The satellite TV becomes more and more directed on the spectator. Besides

  7. I wish to wish all pregnant women of good mood, easy pregnancy and natural sorts! Good luck also are happy! Give birth easily and independently! Let not doctors give birth for you, and you! Also adjust itself on chest feeding of the kid! Read the necessary information! Be, lovely pregnant mums and expecting posterities of the daddy, are healthy and wise!


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