WiMAX Forum Congress Asia 2010 roundup

Yes, WiMAX is still alive and kicking

WHAT MANY OF YOU might not know is that there are several other events that take place in Taiwan during the year apart from Computex, although that is of course the biggest IT event every year. We attended one of the smaller events earlier today, namely the WiMAX Forum Congress Asia 2010. We talked with some interesting people and we also got to see a few new devices.

Considering that Taiwan has a land area of a mere 32,260 square kilometres, it’s quite surprising that there are no less than six WiMAX operators on the island. Each operator has been allocated areas where they can build their networks and it all seems rather silly when you take into consideration that there are no roaming agreements between the various operators. Just like in the early days of 3G, the coverage is very spotty, but at least the cost is quite attractive. You can get an all you can eat package for about $14 a month if you’re willing to sign up for a two year contract.

However, WiMAX promised to be the wireless broadband approach that was set to trump all the wired networks with at least as high speeds, if not better. Well, sadly that isn’t the case as the standard packages on offer are limited to 4Mbps down and 1Mbps to 2Mbps up. Having talked to a few of the hardware manufacturers at the show, we also found out that this speed is only likely to be available to about 20 simultaneous users per base station, anything more than that and the speed drops for all the users. Not exactly good news for a technology that’s claimed to offer superior performance over the current 3.75G infrastructure.

What was surprising was the size of some of the WiMAX dongles that were on display, especially one used by a provider called G1 which was a tiny device from Asus. Now we’re fairly certain that a really tiny WiMAX dongle won’t be as good in terms of reception and transmission quality as a slightly larger one, just like USB WiFi dongles, but it’s still impressive to see how quickly the technology has shrunk, as yours truly attended last year’s event and there was nothing nearly this small on display then.

A company called Dmedia had a combined WiMAX and DVB-T/H TV-tuner combo dongle on display which was no larger than your average USB TV-tuner. One of the more useful devices, at least for those that want to use WiMAX both at home and on the road, was a small mobile router from Sapido that not only has a built in battery, but can also be powered by either USB or a 12V power adapter. The mobile router takes the WiMAX signal and turns in into either WiFi or Ethernet, which allows you to connect it to a wide range of devices.

Mitac also had an interesting device on display, a Tegra powered personal network device (PND) that was running a customized version of Windows CE. It will be supplied with a leather case that has a built in keyboard and an optical track pad, which turn it into a makeshift smartbook. The PND also featured a mini HDMI port so that you can use it for watching movies on a large screen device. Mitac’s representative said that it was trying to make the various WiMAX network operators interested in the PND as it downloads all the data it needs over WiMAX, although for the time being this seems slightly risky considering the spotty coverage.

Last but not least we spotted a development device from Mediatek that is a hybrid GSM/WiMAX Smartphone. You would mainly use the GSM part for voice calls while it would use WiMAX for data services. It can also be tethered over USB to a notebook to function as a WiMAX modem. The handset on display was running Android, although it seemed quite buggy. This isn’t actually a device that consumers will be buying, instead it’s meant as a proof of concept that Mediatek’s partners can build their own devices based on.

We’re still not sold on WiMAX, although it seems like the technology is finally starting to gain some commercial availability, not only in Taiwan, but also in other parts of the world. However, one company we talked to seemed pretty certain that WiMAX will be limited to certain regions of the world, such as Asia, South America and Africa. We were also told by the same company that LTE is most likely going to be the dominant technology in Europe and the US, as there are stronger interests there, partly due to the involvement of the mobile infrastructure companies which are mainly based in those two parts of the world, but also because of its similarities to the current 3G technology.S|A

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