Yesterday, several Government representative and industry specialists visited our office to discuss an ongoing animation project.  Our conversation eventually strayed to the development of WiMAX in Taiwan. 


It is a given that people will soon be using 4G wireless broadband technologies like WiMAX to do things like watch HD video on their (still unavailable in Taiwan) iPads.  However, the specific role of WiMAX in this coming 4G wireless ecology is still in question. 


One of the main business headlines in Taiwan this past week was the purported pull-out of Intel from Taiwan’s WiMAX initiative.  Intel did close their Taipei WiMAX Program Office, prompting indignant reactions from the Taiwan Government, but the company says it remains committed to WiMAX and the closure was simply a restructuring move. WiMAX has been a cause championed here by the Taiwan IT sector, backed by the Government’s M-Taiwan initiative and heavily promoted by the Taipei Computer Association (TCA), a mass “union” of the Taiwan’s top-IT companies. The Intel snafu has not dampened the government’s public enthusiasm for WiMAX; this week a high-profile trade mission to Japan is expected to secure various agreements with Japanese tech manufacturers on future WiMAX collaborations, with an eye towards the China market.


Back to reality. I have attended the WiMAX Expos here in Taipei for the past two years and unfortunately have not seen much to warrant all the fanfare.  I have also tracked some of the developments from WiMAX companies to see what type of killer apps they might come up with to one-up the competition.  I have not seen much yet. 


(photo: Morton Lin via Flickr)


NCC, Taiwan’s de facto FCC, has handed out a whopping 6 WiMAX licenses to operators and yet, after several years, WiMAX broadband penetration is still quite limited.  Only this year have things finally started to change, with WiMAX services recently becoming available to consumers in Southern Taiwan and other selected areas. With the increased global support for the competing LTE standard (led in part by Mainland China’s pushing of TD-LTE, a more efficient variant), I wonder if Taiwan will suffer from putting all of its eggs in the WiMAX basket.


A couple of things that occur to me, however, are that 1) WiMAX and LTE may coexist or even complement each other, it is not necessarily a case of either/or, and 2) it is not always the best or most efficient technology that ends up being the most widely used (think QWERTY keyboards, or VHS vs. Beta). To hedge bets, perhaps it is wise to do as Taiwan’s Far EasTone has done: work on both WiMAX and LTE infrastructure simultaneously.


Certainly I am not a soothsayer and am not technically adept enough to give a reliable forecast of how WiMAX and LTE will compete with or complement one another, but two observations are certainly indicative of the irreversible trends in this sector. 


Reality #1: Taiwan is a small market of 23 million people.  WiMAX service is a capital- and technology-intensive business proposition that requires economy of scale to cut down its upfront investments.  But the government has doled out 6 licenses, and has decreed that each WiMAX operator be confined to only a portion of the already tiny market: North, Middle and South Taiwan.  One can only easily deduce that WiMAX operators might have a difficult time making the ends meet, or even justifying investing heavily into the WiMAX ecology in Taiwan.  Also, Taiwan currently has around 85% broadband penetration provided by telcos and cable companies and the competition is nothing but FIERCE.  WiMAX certainly has an uphill battle unless a strategic alliance is formed between the telcos/cable and the WiMAX companies: that is not happening, as far as I know.


(Every one of these should be Wimax-enabled)



Reality #2: Global iPad sales have reached over 3.27 million units in just one quarter.  iPad are still not yet offered to the consumers in Taiwan, and will be snapped up as soon as they are launched.  The other smart phone handset makers: HTC, Sony Ericson, Nokia, LG, and Samsung all do not seem to be embedding WiMAX operability into their handsets, and the telcos are not keen to integrate WiMAX into their services on top of their WiFi, 3G and future 4G services that will likely use the LTE standard. WiMAX seems to be marginalized at this moment. 


(Wimax: Is it gone with the wind?)



Given these two realities that I see in Taiwan, I do not know if WiMAX can become an appealing alternative. 


But perhaps the future of WiMAX is not in Taiwan, but in the global market.  I have friends who rely on WiMAX to provide them their internet connection when they are in Moscow, Mexico, Tokyo, etc.  Municipalities have been developing them for local use. A large-scale WiMAX network will be available in the U.S. by the end of the year. Perhaps it is also thriving in other markets I am not aware of.  Perhaps WiMAX is more suitable for high quality video streaming in high speed environments, such as on cabs, trains, etc, and therefore suitable for more niche markets.  I just hope that next time I attend the Taipei WiMAX Expo I will be one of the tens of thousands of enthusiasts clamoring to try out the latest dangos and gadgets utilizing WiMAX, and it will be even better if these gadgets will also work OUTSIDE the Expo’s walls. If that happens, then I will have observed Reality #3.


If you have more to share about WiMAX, please do update my limited knowledge.


If you have any questions or comments, please email Jay Lin at jlin@porticomedia.com 

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