WiMAX body slam met with pile driver from its many backers
By Eric Bangeman | Published: March 24, 2008 - 09:15PM CT
Over the weekend, a story surfaced about an Australian WiMAX operator that had massive problems with WiMAX. Buzz Broadband ultimately shut down its network after a year of operation, with the company's CEO calling it a "disaster" that "failed miserably" during remarks made at a WiMAX conference in Bangkok last week. The timing of the remarks is inopportune for Sprint, which is currently testing its Xohm WiMAX network in advance of its public launch in the next couple of months, but the technology's backers see Buzz's experience as an anomaly and predict a bright future for WiMAX.
Buzz Broadband began rolling out its WiMAX service last year and quickly began running into trouble with it, according the company's CEO, Garth Freeman. In his remarks to conference attendees, he faulted WiMAX for a number of deficiencies he said his company had experienced. Subscribers reportedly suffered from latencies of 1,000ms and higher, indoor performance was problematic at distances of over 400m, and, without clear line of sight, the signal dropped at distances of over 2km from the base station.
The fact that a single vendor has had problems with WiMAX isn't that surprising to Miguel Myhrer, a senior executive in Accenture's North American wireless network practice. "WiMAX will have spectacular failures going forward, and if it doesn't, I'd be surprised," Myhrer told Ars. But that's par for the course for any new wireless technology, he argues. "CDMA had problems in Korea when it was first deployed, but it's now [an established], problem-free technology."
Nortel, which is one of the major manufacturers of WiMAX chips, is unfazed by Buzz's experience. "Nortel continues to see strong opportunities for WiMAX," a company spokesperson told Ars. "In particular, WiMAX is an ideal technology that addresses the needs of today's underserved communities bringing high-speed wireless Internet to fixed and mobile subscribers, some of whom have never before had any sort of network connection available to them."
Testing WiMAX speed on the Chicago River last fall
In the US, that's where Sprint comes in. Its $5 billion-plus Xohm WiMAX network has already seen a soft launch, with the company and selected partners stress testing it in advance of its public debut later this spring. When asked about Buzz's WiMAX ills, a company spokesperson pointed Ars to comments from an analyst at Yankee Group. "We do not believe Buzz's failure in WiMAX implies the failure of WiMAX itself," Yankee Group VP of Asia-Pacific Research X.J. Wang told WiMAX trends.
Sprint believes that the problems encountered by Buzz Broadband are specific to that company and its choice of vendors. The wireless provider points to the example of WiBro's successful WiMAX deployment in Korea as evidence that WiMAX has a bright future in front of it.
Buzz Broadband's problems are indicative of the challenges that new technologies face as they are rolled out, rather than of a fatal flaw in the WiMAX spec. "[WiMAX] won't work as advertised on day one, but over time it will," Myhrer told Ars. It's important for Sprint to get Xohm's launch right, Myhrer believes, but the ultimate indicator of WiMAX's success will come in the "BRIC countries" (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). "If Sprint deploys WiMAX successfully, but those countries don't, it will ultimately be a niche technology," said Myhrer.
There are two other bits of data to note here. First, Buzz Broadband uses the fixed version of WiMAX, which is heavily reliant on line-of-sight. A Sprint spokesperson highlighted that as an important distinction between Buzz and Xohm, which uses the mobile flavor (Ars attended a demo of mobile WiMAX during a Chicago River cruise last year). Also, Buzz operates in the 3.5GHz spectrum, which doesn't propagate as well indoors. In contrast, Sprint and Clearwire are using 2.5GHz spectrum for their Mobile WiMAX, which will penetrate better indoors. The takeaway? Despite the problems Buzz has had in Australia, WiMAX's future—and present—still look bright.