Can WiMAX Triumph Over Its Competitors?

 |  Includes: CHTR, CMCSA, ELNK, S, T, VZ
by: Ari Zoldan

Now that Sprint's (NYSE:S) long-awaited Xohm service has launched in Baltimore to mostly positive reviews, researchers, bloggers, and journalists are beginning to place their bets on the upcoming battle between WiMAX and long term evolution (LTE), its toughest challenger.

Researchers at In-Stat have struck the first blow for WiMAX, concluding in a new report that WiMAX is likely to "outpace" LTE over the next few years, though both technologies are still years away from full implementation. In-Stat argues that because LTE will not be ready for at least another year or two, the timing of network roll-outs favors WiMAX technology.

But CNET's Marguerite Reardon is skeptical, as she draws a comparison between Sprint's Xohm roll-out and the recent failed efforts by EarthLink (NASDAQ:ELNK) to develop municipal Wi-Fi networks. She argues that Sprint's business model may be doomed to fail because it pits WiMAX against existing 3G data services and cheaper, more consistent broadband options such as Verizon (NYSE:VZ) DSL. In the absence of financial incentives and a greater variety of WiMAX-ready devices, Reardon predicts that Xohm will face a tough battle for consumers – not necessarily against LTE, but against HSPA products offered by competitors.

However, while Sprint's WiMAX network in Baltimore may not be as consistent as existing broadband services -- for now, at least -- it still offers stronger, faster, and more consistent connections than EarthLink's Wi-Fi project, which depended on countless access points, each with a limited reach. WiMAX offers the freedom of municipal Wi-Fi, but with far less hassle -- so the real goal for Sprint is to convince consumers that its service will make their lives easier, liberate them from coffee shops, and save them the trouble of dealing with routers and modems. Their inability to pull this off is by no means a foregone conclusion. Municipal Wi-Fi, after all, is still an attractive concept in theory, if not in practice. And while it's true that WiMAX-ready mobile devices and laptops are currently few in number, we can doubtlessly expect to see more of these devices entering the market if the launch of Xohm proves to be successful in the long run.

Reardon doesn't mention LTE directly, but she does inject a bit of unpleasant reality into the WiMAX vs. LTE debate by pointing out the gloomy state of the economy, and in doing so, she raises an important question: what if delays in WiMAX roll-outs give LTE technology time to catch up? Phil Skeffington, an associate with UK-based consultancy Mott MacDonald Schema, doesn't see a problem.

In fact, if Skeffington is right, the battle between WiMAX and LTE may even result in a draw. Skeffington believes that WiMAX and LTE are "complementary technologies," with LTE poised to become the preferred technology for mobile handsets, and WiMAX set to corner the market of "nomadic" laptop users because of its superior bandwidth capabilities. Because demand from laptop users is higher right now, WiMAX is still likely to hold on to its early lead. Its ability to emerge from the fight unscathed depends on Sprint's ability to attract consumers, to create demand for devices, and to convince manufacturers and investors to meet that demand.

Fortunately for backers of WiMAX, there is plenty of cause for optimism.

Disclosure: Author holds a long position in S