Mixed Signals on WiMax at CTIA

In filtering through the myriad of WiMax announcements at CTIA, I’m coming away with the feeling that the market for this technology isn’t going to be anywhere near as big as everyone had initially hoped. Sprint, for example, has delayed the launch of its Xohm WiMax service until later this year. Apparently it’s still committed to the launch, and may make it happen as soon as this summer, at least judging by the gossip among the attendees at CTIA.

Most carriers are endorsing LTE as the 4G standard of choice, and Arun Sarin, the CEO of Vodafone, said this morning that he thought WiMax should be subsumed into the LTE standard. It was the same message he pushed at the Mobile World Congress earlier this year. A move that drastic is unlikely, but most WiMax adoption is likely to occur in developing countries and among smaller carriers.

Other signs of WiMax’s lukewarm reception could be found within Cisco’s announcement that it would provide the network equipment for regional WiMax carrier Xanadoo. Cisco gained its WiMax network equipment through its purchase of Navini Networks in 2007. Xanadoo had been a customer of Navini for its previous generation of WiMax equipment, so choosing Cisco is good for Cisco, but not exactly unexpected or a new entrant in the pool of WiMax carriers.

With the potential market shrinking and facing a slower expansion, the plans unveiled by several of the WiMax chip startups at the show are puzzling. WiMax chip startup Beceem said it plans to produce its chips at 65 nanometers, as does and Sequans, another WiMax chip vendor, later this year. Pushing WiMax chips down the process node indicates these startups believe there will be a large demand for WiMax chips in the near future.

I’m not sure I buy it. Bill Krenik, the CTO of Texas Instrument’s wireless division, said his company still believes in WiMax, but thinks it won’t live up to the hype it generated a few years ago. As the technology hype meets reality, I think some of the chip startups might be getting too far ahead of the WiMax adoption curve.