WiMax Won't Break Monopolies

Many industry pundits are hedging their bets on WiMax being The Next Big Thin(TM) in broadband. To hear them tell it, WiMax will make for dozens of competing ISPs with varying prices and speeds and overall lower costs. Not only is this view unrealistic for the technology, but it's unrealistic for the business.

The biggest problem is that they can't even finalize the standard for the equipment. The standard, 802.16, has been in development for years and has been plagued with a host of delays. The biggest problem facing WiMax is interoperability or the ability of devices from different manufacturers to talk to each other. Without that basic step, the equipment will be proprietary to each network and therefore much more expensive.

While singing the praises of WiMax's long potential reach of 70 miles and its' high speeds of 70Mbps, these same talking heads fail to acknowledge that as you move further from the tower, the speed goes down. A lot. WiMax is not intended to be a replacement for land-based Internet. On the contrary, it is meant to solve "last mile" problems. This means installing a lot of towers to provide adequate coverage at high speed. While this is feasible for a company like, say, Sprint (who will be pumping $3 billion into a WiMax network), it won't help Joe ISP make any inroads.

That's just the problem: the companies getting onto the WiMax bandwagon are established players with lots of free capital. Sprint and Verizon are setting up for a clash of the titans with thier WiMax offerings. What about your local ISP? They have to find sites to lease to setup the towers, make sure the towers have a high-speed connection back to the main office, and get all of that zoning and regulatory approval to do it all. The established players already have the sites, connections, and zoning taken care of with their extensive cellular networks, making their entry into the market much cheaper.

There's another edge that the established players have: they have the spectrum needed to roll it out. Unlike WiFi which uses an unlicensed (and therefore free to use) spectrum, WiMax has no set frequencies. This means you either buy a slice of spectrum from the FCC or stay out of the game. This also reduces portability of your WiMax connection as different jurisdictions might actually use different frequencies!

Contrary to what the astroturfing campaigns of the not-so-Baby Bells might espouse, WiMax is just going to give you more choices of the same lousy companies you've been trying to get away from. It is not going to supplant or replace the benefits of municipal broadband projects and will probably cost a lot more. Ignore their hype and get onto the UTOPIA bandwagon. 

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