WiBro’s ‘Success’ Not Boding Well For WiMax

Posted on: Techdirt.com

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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