Will mobile WiMAX replace WiFi?

The question of whether WiMAX will replace WiFi is highly controversial. This topic is being batted around the industry, and I can’t resist discussing my views (and hearing your thoughts). The stakes are high. Big companies like Intel are making mobile WiMAX chips, and carriers such as Sprint Nextel are moving forward with large-scale mobile WiMAX deployments. The question of whether WiMAX will replace WiFi is highly controversial. This topic is being batted around the industry, and I can’t resist discussing my views (and hearing your thoughts).

The stakes are high. Big companies like Intel are making mobile WiMAX chips, and carriers such as Sprint Nextel are moving forward with large-scale mobile WiMAX deployments. However, there’s already a huge installed base of WiFi networks. After performing pre-installation site survey work in partnership with Civitium for various large cities throughout the U.S., for instance, I’ve found that there are tens of thousands of WiFi networks distributed throughout homes and businesses within large cities. Also, WiFi networks are found in most hotels and airports worldwide. Won’t these WiFi networks get in the way of a complete WiMAX take over?

I don’t think that mobile WiMAX will completely replace WiFi. Users, even if they could, will certainly not hurry to replace their existing WiFi networks with mobile WiMAX in homes and businesses. I think that it’s more likely that they will replace the radio in their client devices with a multimode radio that implements WiFi, mobile WiMAX and possibly other technologies. I feel that this multi-network architecture is more likely for as we can see at this point in time.

I would love to hear your comments – please post them below.

– – – – –

Jim Geier is an independent consultant and founder of Wireless-Nets, Ltd, a consulting firm assisting municipalities, enterprises, hospitals, airports, and equipment providers with the development and deployment of wireless networks. Jim is the author of several books, including Deploying Voice over Wireless LANs (Cisco Press), Wireless LANs (SAMS), Wireless Networks ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ First Step (Cisco Press), Wireless Networking Handbook (Macmillan), and Network Reengineering (McGraw-Hill).


  1. This will come down to simple user level economics. You will probably continue to need a DSL or cable modem connection in your home which you can easily extend to wireless devices with Wifi for free (or very litte money). The question will be whether you want to pay for a wide area broadband connection as well – this will be provided mainly by HSDPA and, to a lesser extent, Wimax. Both will likely charge similar rates for service as build and operating costs for both types of network are similar. And if you believe that Wimax is far superior on bandwidth then I have a bridge I would like to show you…

    Oh yes, and then there will be muni-wireless for free or a low price as well but again, you will need a fixed connection to receive the multimedia entertainment that you want as the muni-wifi won’t offer enough bandwidth.

  2. It will eventually all come down to costs.
    Mobile Wimax will not take of (and outgrow WiFi) until there are sufficient client devices out there.
    Look at WiFi, this only took of as a consumer level technology once Intel started incorporating th Centrino chips in their products.
    Just because the big players are pushing Wimax doesn’t mean that consumers are going to replace their wifi client devices by a Wimax device.
    Consumer adaptation is relatively slow and is driven by cost in the first place and convenience in second place.
    There are tens of press releases being issued every wek on money invested in Wimax however there is very little discussion on the money being made….


  3. There is so much confusion and FUD on this topic is hard to choose where to start. I see all these RFP’s and articles written which ignore some of the most basic facts about WiMAX today.

    A couple of very key points to consider before beginning the ‘ol “WiMAX will replace WiFi discussion”.

    1. WiMAX is a LICENSED frequency technology. Apply this to the US market and that means 3-4 companies TOTAL can build WiMAX networks, period! They will more likely be closed alternatives to 3G networks vs. open networks like WiFi (ie: are they 2 different things?).

    This article and discussion on the topic captures this discussion well:


    2. It’s the DEVICES, not the networks! We have covered this before, it is fair to acknowledge that you wouldn’t START with WiFi when considering the optimum outdoor wireless broadband technology. However, if you want that same technology to have several hundred MILLION pre-installed compatible devices at large… and more coming every day, then it’s the ONLY choice!

    Extend this to the mobile WiMAX discussion… first standards based devices will certainly be for the 2.3-2.5 band. Even when the industry agrees to an UNLICENSED place to operate (hence, expanding the number of people who will actually build standardized WiMAX networks) — the devices will still remain incompatible until a next-wave of WiMAX devices for that given (unlicensed) frequency emerges.

    All this takes time. In the meantime, huge progess and experience is gained every day in making citywide WiFi networks work effectively and deliver a positive & economical user experience.

    In other words… by the time an OPEN WiMAX ecosystem is actually ready… the horse race may very well be over…


  4. I would suggest, forget about technology. If the typical operator business model comes to play, WIMAX will become as succesful as UMTS and HSDPA. Not.

  5. Drew Lentz says

    I agree that the introduction of multi-mode chipsets in the marketplace will definitely have an impact on the proliferation of mobile Wimax, but I still don’t see it taking a common role for quite sometime, regardless of having client devices available.

    In my mind, mobile Wimax will be for national travelers at the beginning (as I pound this out via my Sprint EVDO card) and will eventually try and make it’s way into the homes. It’s just like the EV-DO Rev. A, Edge, and HSDPA, technologies that are being talked about by cell companies. Sure, for years they have been demoing how great it is at trade shows, and granted some markets are rolled out, but how many markets that are serviced by these technologies have seen people latch onto them as their primary access? And even in those markets, how many of the users that use it still rely primarily on a cable, dsl, or wireless connection at home?

    I think that for a long time people will stick to their cable modems, DSL, and wireless services. Mobile wimax seems like another great service that a cell company can offer, but I do think it’ll be quite sometime before people take full advantage of it, and even at that, I don’t see it as becoming a primary connection method for quite sometime. I dunno, to me it seems like it will be a nice “accessory”, whenever it is that it becomes available.

  6. John Holmblad says

    Just as Mobile voice service started out as a “power tool” for the corporate mobile worker and then “trickled” down/out into the broader economy, so will broadband mobile data services, today in the form of EVDO/HSDPA, and eventually in the form of WIMAX.

    A year ago I thought that WIMAX was DOA but I was wrong.


    a)Intel’s investment in Clearwire,

    b) Motorola’s acquisition of Clearwire’s Nextnet pre-wimax product and customer base,

    c) Sprint’s decision to build its next generation network on WIMAX,

    d) the fact that WIMAX is an international standard, and

    e) therefore will likely become the standard used by all mobile operators in their 4th (or is it 5th?) g networks,

    f) in the U.S. at least the mobile operators encourage their customers to upgrade/replace their phones every two years (e.g. Verizon’s “new every two” plan) and finally

    g) that mobile voice is moving to VOIP in any case so it can run over a broadband data service like WIMAX perfectly well

    I believe that WIMAX has an excellent future ahead of it and will within 10 years will become the dominant mobile broadband standard.

  7. I think WiMax can be a tremendous threat to HSDPA in terms of deployment cost and coverage. It has the ability to operate in the paid and free license band. This alone can bring the cost down several notches compared to HSDPA. However, its mobility issues wont stand a light to HSDPA. But look at it this way, how many of us would actually surf the net and yet move around (besides being in a car or train)? As consumers, we need a cheap wireless internet service which covers most parts of the city. Current Wifi coverage requires users to know exact wifi-hotspots which is quite a pain. It is also quite easy for users to add WiMax to their current existing wifi pc notebooks via the PCM/CIA slots. Imagine, if I can have cheap wireless internet in all parts of the city ……..!

  8. WiFi and WiMAX will co-exist in the Metro and Near Suburb Outdoor markets and eventually will converge with the Cell Carriers Nationwide and Rural networks.

    A few point to keep in mind:
    1. US Based Licensed WiMAX operates in the 2.5Ghz spectrum and I am still not convinced that these folks will be able to COST effectively cover a Metro area with significant bandwidth & signal due to foliage and other NLOS issues. Cost competitiveness will rule: We need to ask what is the real Cost Per Proprietary Base Station to deploy and connect to the backbone and then what is the recurring monthly (OPEX) to maintain and upgrade this network. This all assumes that Intel will drives down the cost of their WiMAX Chips for handhelds to what WiFi is today.
    Perfomance is one thing: Performance at a cost/delivered meg/subscriber is something else.
    WiMAX Success:
    However, when they (WiMAX players & the FCC) release the 700Mhz spectrum and the radio/chip vendors are able to use the Features offered by WiMAX in this spectrum (whether Licensed or Unlicensed), they will have something-That means the earliest this Mobile Technology will be effectively deployed (cost effectively cover a metro market)is sometime in 2009. That is if the CellCo do not suck up all this bandwidth at Auction and use it themsleves to bypass the WiMAX, Mesh Providers and even thier own Cell Nets to lock in their existing subscribers.
    Until then the 2.5Ghz WiMAX mobile networks will be an Interim solution for a select markets.

    2. WiFi based Mesh networks continue to evolve and are designed to work in and deliver high bandwidth in all types of Metro Market coverage areas (over/around and under the Canopy).
    When these WiFi Mesh networks add in 802.11n features to existing 2.4 & 5 Ghz radios, and are combined with the Fixed WiMAX features and Unlicensed components delivering Gateway Access, they will become even more competitive-even against Wired Services.
    New developments in low cost Fiber Switches will allow Service Providers to tap into and leverage the Fiber networks cost effectively delivering 100Mbps Gateways to the Mesh Nodes/AP.

    3. WiFi, supported by WiMAX systems will dominate the Metro Space delivering true Broabdand/Subscriber (2Mbps+).
    When the industry and the Muni finally decide that they really do need more than 2 radios per Mesh Node to effectively cover a market they will dominate the Last 1/2 Mile markets.
    This is and will be critical in order to deliver real Broadband high quality data/VoiceIP and VideoIP Services and handle the P2P and Multiplayer Gaming demands that will dominate this Wireless Space.