The battle seems to boil down to a few sets of variables:
- Can Intel get integrated, WiMAX-enabled laptops into the market as fast as it did for WiFi?
- Can mobile operators encourage (subsidise?) laptop manufacturers to embed 3G modules instead of (or as well as) WiMAX?
- Is the current laptop installed base going to churn as fast as did (about 3 years) when Centrino was introduced?
- While existing HSPA dongles & inexpensive mobile broadband subscriptions are flying off the shelves, can the networks scale fast enough (in terms of backhaul & maybe extra sites) to avoid worsening user experience?
- What happens when a laptop has both WiMAX and 3G in it/attached to it? How does the connection manager cope and assert preferences?
- Are 3G operators' existing frequency allocations (up until now underused) soon going to be struggling to deliver a decent broadband experience to a massmarket of PC users? What frequencies are available to them, and in paired (FDD) or unpaired (TDD) spectrum?
- How well can different operators deal with supporting pre-paid models for mobile broadband rather than monthly subscriptions?
Clearly, the 3G guys have been a bit rattled by WiMAX's successes in spectrum allocations. This doesn't relate to specific deployments (or delays) like SprintNextel's, but by the strategic success of the lobbying machine when it comes to important decisions like the ITU's acceptance of WiMAX as part of the IMT family of allowable technologies in 3G-designated spectrum. Add to this the recent movement in Europe towards supporting "technology neutrality", especially in 2.6GHz, and the recent endorsement of a report (CEPT #19) permitting national regulators to deviate from the supposedly-harmonised original band plan for 2.6GHz to permit more WiMAX-suitable TDD spectrum to be allocated, at the expense of 3G/LTE-optimised FDD.
Ofcom's new statement on the upcoming 2.6GHz auctions clearly demonstrates that it expects to push ahead with a flexible band-plan approach, and although some other EU regulators (Sweden & Austria) have toed the conservative 3GPP-friendly CEPT 05(05) line, I suspect others will follow Ofcom's path.
Conversely, it looks to me as if the WiMAX community is getting rattled by the seeming success of mobile broadband offers by the HSPA and EVDO operators. The whole 'dongle' phenomenon has sprung up in a narrow window of opportunity before WiMAX-enabled offers start to emerge widely. They're also supported by existing MNOs' huge retail and marketing presence, and arguably are setting price points that are making future new entrants wince as much as incumbents. And there are some early and very smart moves to support prepay for data.
I had a very persuasive briefing call yesterday with a leading WiMAX advocate who felt that existing 3G networks were going to saturate very quickly with the current consumer dongle offers, and felt that without extra capacity the propositions only had a limited shelf-life & appeal. While I think that some extra capacity may come from femtocells I don't see it changing the dynamics fast enough to make a huge difference - I reckon some of the European 3G networks will start to creak by the end of this year. As a side note and possible anecdotal evidence, my HSDPA modem on 3 UK now seems to struggle to get much above 300kbit/s, and it's often much worse.
So where are we? How will laptops be connecting in 3-5 years' time?
The future situation for laptop-suitable WiMAX spectrum is definitely improving, in some places more so than others.
But 3G operators have stolen an early lead in getting devices to market, although there are storm clouds gathering about scalability of their existing networks.
And as I've written about before, 3G-embedded PCs are still going nowhere, although ultra-cheap laptops (subsidisable down to £zero) may make a difference for those operators who have sufficient retail skills to sell & service computers.
And I certainly wouldn't write off WiFi, as it becomes more ubiquitous, easier to use, and increasingly free.
I think that the pivot point will be the perceptions of quality of existing 3G dongle-based service over the next 12 months as the networks fill up - and whether the existing mobile operators are getting sufficiently good margins to make them want to bid big for 2.6GHz spectrum, even in the face of a likely Intel-led onslaught of WiMAX-capable PCs.