BOSTON—Unlike many of the futuristic networking concepts evangelized in years past, people intent on developing WiMax wireless broadband services seem unusually honest in recognizing its present shortcomings.
Gathered at the ongoing WiMax World Conference & Exposition 2005 here this week, industry analysts and business executives agreed that there is still much development and experimentation needed to translate the wireless connectivity platform into a marketable and profitable service.
Despite questions about what kinds of standards and applications are needed to help push WiMax into the mainstream, experts seemed encouraged that the nascent technology is maturing at a breakneck pace.
Many of the worlds largest telecommunications companies are betting that WiMax holds the potential to combine the benefits of DSL, 3G and Wi-Fi networking technologies into one platform, and push broadband access into new regions and devices.
Among the biggest challenges those firms face, said Berge Ayvazian, chief research officer with Boston-based Yankee Group, will be uniting the many different standards that oversee wireless broadband around the world, and finding the right opportunities to aim the technology at business and consumer markets.
"There are still many obstacles to growth and we have to make sure that development of WiMax is beneficial to established players as well as new companies," said Ayvazian.
"For starters, we need more of a common effort around the world, as there are still too many localized standards."
The analyst said that the few WiMax packaged access services available on the market today will soon be replaced by far-reaching wireless broadband networks that sprawl across entire cities and towns.
He observed that this growth will dictate that carriers and other service providers focus as much on the WiMax-oriented applications they will develop as they do on building out available bandwidth.
"The future success of wireless broadband ultimately rests on the many forms of applications and services that (operators) will be able to deliver to end users," said Ayvazian.
"Weve learned that its not enough to have connectivity applications like WiMax made available to encourage users to adopt, we also need packaged applications built on service delivery platforms that take advantage of the networks."
One example of such an application already being developed can be found within the halls of search giant Google Inc., which is already planning to test a system in San Francisco that explores the viability of creating location-based advertising for wireless users of its Web sites.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has said it will look at the success of the application from a financial standpoint before launching such a service nationwide.
Somewhat surprisingly, experts are predicting that one of the hotbeds for development of WiMax applications in the United States will reside in the local public sector, as cities and other municipalities are already investing millions of dollars into new wireless communications systems.
Among the uses being conceived in those towns are WiMax-bred meter reading tools, public safety services, traffic monitoring networks and video surveillance systems, in addition to mapping applications for tourists.
One of the resounding themes of the day was that telecommunications carriers must find ways to adopt WiMax-oriented services today that also take advantage of the existing 3G (third generation) wireless networks theyve invested in.
In fact, said several executives, companies should look for ways to blend WiMax with other technologies in order to help provision bandwidth most intelligently, from both a cost and performance perspective, and to cover any lagging issues related to the wireless broadband service itself.
According to Behzad Nadji, vice president of the Research Labs group at AT&T Corp., Bedminster, N.J., pressure will be on telecommunications companies to figure out ways to build wireless services that run on todays networking infrastructure that will become even more valuable over WiMax systems.
AT&T is already testing WiMax networks in urban, suburban and rural settings, he said, and examining the applications and physical infrastructure that will be needed to make each type of system work effectively.
Another important issue still on the table with WiMax development is convincing potential customers about the security of the networks and services as they are launched, according to the AT&T research leader.
Despite having what he considers to be very secure technological underpinnings, some people remain convinced otherwise, he said.
"Theres still a misnomer that wireless is insecure, but this (WiMax) is a technology with 2 layers of protection via MAC layer encryption on the devices, and provisions in the network itself," said Nadji.
"Theres actually a robust layer of security built into WiMax that is not in wire line systems, and you get standard VPN and IPsec security on top of that."
Among the few companies represented at the conference that are already marketing WiMax services to customers was Clearwire Corp., the broadband Internet service provider founded and led by telecommunications icon Craig McCaw.
The Kirkland, Wash.-based company and its NextNet Wireless subsidiary are already providing WiMax connectivity services to businesses and other consumers in 23 U.S. cities, with operations underway in Canada, Europe and Mexico as well.
Gerry Salemme, executive vice president of Clearwire, said that the companys experience thus far has been that customers are ready to embrace the technology, as long as it can be delivered consistently.
By making the service as simple as possible for people to use from the beginning, he said, the WiMax industry will do itself favors in the long run.
"Getting a shrink-wrapped service on the market is a key to growth, just as it was in moving cellular technology from the hands of a few into many," said Salemme.
"As we launch more services, specifically making WiMax more friendly to mobile use, it will become dominant and accepted."
The executive said that by creating networks that can allow for consistent use of wireless broadband across larger regions, and make it less important for users to be close to a WiMax towers for peak performance, service providers will make a better case for themselves with users, who remain discouraged by somewhat spotty reception of wireless broadband.
"Were at a point where were evolving, and putting together critical assets to reach that ultimate environment," said Salemme.
"Right now (WiMax) is thought to be nomadic or fixed in performance, but were thinking of ways to change the economics to get people to take the technology with them.
"Well continue to evolve to support more devices and be fully mobile so we can be sold on a personal, versus household, basis."