The debate over the merits of licensed vs. unlicensed WiMAX has been raging for years, but the fact of the matter always has been, and will remain, that both licensed and unlicensed WiMAX have considerable opportunities in today’s broadband landscape. Though vendors and different industry organizations will often try to persuade otherwise, the licensed and unlicensed WiMAX solutions are not at war, and they are often not even competing for the same types of applications.
Simply put, tier one service providers that are deploying mobile WiMAX have traditionally been committed to licensed WiMAX solutions, while tier 2-3 service providers and WISPs that are providing primarily fixed wireless broadband access have traditionally championed unlicensed WiMAX solutions. Now, that’s not to say that the use of licensed or unlicensed WiMAX is ALWAYS tied to either mobile or fixed service (respectively), but for the most part that is the case.
What’s interesting, however, is how much more attention is paid to licensed WiMAX as compared to unlicensed WiMAX in the media. If you look at the amount of attention that is paid to the two different deployment types – licensed/mobile and unlicensed/fixed – in the media, it would indicate that people are far more excited about licensed WiMAX than they are about unlicensed wireless.
Now that Clearwire has launched WiMAX service in 14 markets and people have actually been able to experience the service, enthusiasm for WiMAX has spiked yet again after waning in previous years. And while I do think that the market’s latest wave of enthusiasm for WiMAX is justified (since it is based on positive experience with deployed networks, instead of just the promise of these networks), there is a distinction that needs to be made when it comes to the future of WiMAX. That distinction is the difference in opportunities for licensed WiMAX as compared to unlicensed WiMAX and other point-to-multipoint wireless technologies.
To be clear – this is not an article about which is more important. Both have their own merits and are important for different market segments. However, considering the fact that a vast majority of the attention given to WiMAX is given to the licensed variants of WiMAX, it’s worth taking a look at the market opportunity for unlicensed wireless systems as well.
Really, What’s the Difference?
For many, the difference between licensed and unlicensed WiMAX technologies remains unclear. So before we dive into the primary opportunities and applications for unlicensed WiMAX, let’s break down some of the key differentiators:
Quick View of Licensed vs. Unlicensed Differentiators
As illustrated in the table above, the cost benefits of unlicensed WiMAX over licensed WiMAX are pretty extreme due to the billions of dollars required to obtain licensed frequencies in the first place. That fact alone often dictates when and where licensed can or cannot be used, and drives the demand for unlicensed WiMAX in many markets where the cost of licensed technologies is not justifiable. Below are several key markets where the high performance and significantly reduced cost of unlicensed WiMAX make it an ideal technology.
Last-Mile Access for Rural Areas
WiMAX has long been pegged as the saving grace for providing broadband to rural, under-served communities throughout the world. But when determining which variant (licensed or unlicensed) is better suited for deploying last-mile access to these under-served areas, it’s important to remember the primary reason why many of these areas don’t have access in the first place. Simply put, the cost of extending service via fiber or other wired technologies has outweighed the potential return the major carriers could expect based on the small populations of people in these rural areas.
With wired technologies like fiber or copper, the combination of the high cost of goods as well as the cost associated with trenching or stringing that wire for long distances to rural areas was the prohibiting factor. Similarly, with licensed WiMAX, the high cost of applying for and acquiring licensed frequencies has also made it an unrealistic option for extending broadband service to remote communities – despite the distance benefits that WiMAX links provide.
Unlicensed WiMAX, however, provides an ideal balance of high-performance, long-distance functionality at a significantly lower cost. As a result, carriers, ISPs and WISPs are able to cost-effectively extend broadband service to remote rural areas. And due to the significant upfront cost savings, these service providers are able to recognize a much quicker return on investment (ROI), even though the population of subscribers in these areas is smaller.
Wireless Video Surveillance
Another burgeoning market that unlicensed WiMAX has carved out a well-defined niche in is the video surveillance market. This is a market whose growth has exploded over the past 5 years, and that ABI Research forecasts will be a $41 billion a year market by 2014.
This explosive growth and continued market potential is due to an increasing need for video surveillance to help secure the world’s ports, airports, cities and transportation infrastructure as well as schools, hospitals, government and other critical environments. Now more than ever, organizational demands have hastened our search for better, more cost-effective security applications, and in many instances, rapid deployment of security systems has become essential. But as critical as improved security has become, budgets to accomplish this goal are by no means unlimited.
Organizations of all kinds are being challenged to install video surveillance in areas that are too remote, too costly or physically impossible to reach with additional cabling. As a result, unlicensed wireless solutions have been a boon to the video surveillance market as they enable the ability to cost-effectively leap over these barriers, allowing a virtually unlimited number of video surveillance cameras to be deployed quickly, easily and affordably.
In particular, unlicensed WiMAX has emerged as the premiere solution to provide the wireless backhaul and transmission of real-time video surveillance. As a wireless WAN technology, WiMAX was designed specifically with the efficient backhaul of broadband data, voice and video at its core. Unlike wireless mesh technologies, which provide unpredictable service for backhauling streaming video, WiMAX is deterministic with built in scheduled access and Quality of Service (QoS) mechanisms to ensure the reliable delivery of video.
For more information on the benefits of wireless for video surveillance, download a free white paper here.
Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS) and Transportation
In recent years, there has been a large trend towards deploying video cameras at intersection to enable a number of traffic and transportation applications. One well-known program is the Red Light Running program, where cameras automatically detect cars that run red lights, snap a picture of their license plate, and send the driver a ticket.
Until recent years, the only realistic option for connecting the cameras at these intersections was to run a dedicated leased line to each camera at every intersection a city wished to deploy. This was not only an extremely costly solution, with leased lines running as much as $2,000 (in some cases more) per month, but installing a new dedicated wired line for each camera also required a great deal of labor, further driving up the cost and impeding the scalability of these systems. Many cities and towns simply don’t have the budget to deploy wired or licensed systems, though.
Today, however, cities and counties are turning to unlicensed WiMAX technologies to remove the cost and complexity roadblocks that have prevented greater rollout of these programs. WiMAX, originally designed as a backhaul technology, has proven ideal for the increased bandwidths required by HD video cameras. And since today’s wireless radios can not only backhaul the traffic from multiple cameras while (in some cases) powering co-located cameras directly from the radio via Power over Ethernet (PoE), unlicensed WiMAX and other high-bandwidth point-to-multipoint technologies are ideally suited to drive down the cost of traffic camera connectivity while greatly easing deployments.
Just the Beginning…
While the applications above are great examples of existing market opportunities where unlicensed WiMAX is thriving, these are just the beginning. In any application or deployment scenario where running fiber is deemed too costly, licensed WiMAX is also likely to be similarly cost-prohibitive. And that’s where unlicensed WiMAX comes to the rescue, with many of the same technological benefits of licensed WiMAX, but at a fraction of the cost.
There are definitely huge market opportunities for both licensed and unlicensed WiMAX, but it is important to understand in which applications and opportunities each is relevant. For applications and markets where high-performance broadband access or connectivity is needed but where initial cost and a need for faster ROI are limiting factors, unlicensed WiMAX and other unlicensed PtMP technologies are the ideal solution for the following reasons:
- Elimination of the massive costs and delays of trenching for fiber or acquiring licensed frequencies
- Quickly deployed and configured – operational within hours
- Deploys virtually anywhere – across rugged terrain, bodies of water and remote areas
- Carrier-class reliability ensures non-stop security
- High capacity, configurable and secure broadband wireless for guaranteed QoS
- Enables real-time transmission from and control of surveillance cameras
For more information on the cost benefits of unlicensed WiMAX and other wireless technologies, get a free copy of a new analyst report from Craig Mathias, principal analyst at the Farpoint Group, titled “Wireline vs. Wireless: Exploring Total Cost of Ownership in Outdoor Applications.” You can download a copy of the report for free here.
Robb Henshaw is the Global Director of Marketing & Communications at Proxim Wireless, a manufacturer of end-to-end broadband wireless systems, where he oversees the company’s marketing and communications efforts. For the last 8 years he has been dedicated to helping develop the wireless industry, with expertise in technologies ranging from enterprise WLANs, to carrier-grade wireless backhaul, to WiMAX and point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access (BWA) solutions.