A lot of tech news writers latched onto the words of Australian broadband executive Garth Freeman last week when he said that WiMAX was a "disaster" and it that "failed miserably." Several reporters and bloggers took Freeman's words to imply that WiMAX was doomed as a technology. Unfortunately, most of the writers who regurgitated these juicy quotes did very little fact-checking or critical thinking about WiMAX.
They obviously didn't realize that KT has been running a WiMAX network (called WiBro) in South Korea since mid-2006. And, apparently, they forgot that there are dozens of successful WiMAX deployments already in existence across the globe (see map below).
Instead, they latched onto Freeman's veiled confession that his company Buzz Broadband botched its WiMAX deployment and was abandoning it, plus Freeman's remarks that "WiMAX may not work" and that it was still "mired in opportunistic hype." Many reporters and bloggers took those remarks and simply turned them into "WiMAX doesn't work."
There's no doubt that WiMAX has suffered from its share of over-hype, often driven by Intel. Freeman (right) also correctly noted that one of one of the key weaknesses of WiMAX is indoor coverage — a weakness it shares with the current cellular networks. However, to take this failed deployment as evidence that WiMAX is a bad technology is preposterous.
The untold story is that Buzz Broadband tried to cut corners and do its WiMAX deployment as cheaply as possible, ignoring conventional wisdom and advice from its WiMAX vendor Airspan in building out the infrastructure to support WiMAX.
"We know that there were significant under-provisioning issues in the core network which connected the Airspan equipment to the Internet," said Declan Byrne, Airspan's Chief Marketing Officer. "Very early in the relationship, Airspan technical services determined that Buzz's backhaul network was considerably under-dimensioned (again to save cost) and lacked sufficient QoS, and that these factors were the direct cause of VoIP quality issues in the network. Airspan even went so far as to offer to fund a third-party analysis to help Buzz understand these issues. Both Airspan's help and third-party assistance were refused by Mr. Freeman.
"[W]e exhausted all avenues to help [Buzz Broadband] re-engineer their core network and resolve these service issues. In the end, with Mr. Freeman rejecting help from the outside, the technical and financial resources of Buzz Broadband were not sufficient to deploy a functioning network... We regret the distress caused by Buzz' poor network architecture decisions."
I contacted Buzz Broadband to get its reaction to these charges by Airspan, but it did not respond. Thus, it looks like Freeman and Buzz Broadband's IT department should share a lot of the blame for its failed WiMAX deployment, and this will stand as a cautionary tale of what happens when you try to cut corners during a network buildout.
Unfortunately, this whole Garth Freeman and Buzz Broadband situation reminds me of the kid who doesn't do his homework, fails a class, and then whines about the fact that the teacher wasn't fair. In fact, if he would have just done the work that he was supposed to do, he would have probably gotten at least a B minus.
I should also mention that I've taken part in three live WiMAX demos over the past six months and each of them produced consistent broadband connections of about 2 Mbps. Each of the demos were set up by vendors — Motorola, Intel, and Sprint — so it was in a controlled environment, but it worked as expected, with minimal hiccups (for example, there were some quality issues with a Skype call while driving around in a WiMAX-equipped SUV at CES 2008 in Las Vegas in January). I'm expecting to do more WiMAX testing when Sprint officially rolls out its Xohm WiMAX network in Chicago and Washington, D.C. this spring, and I will provide reports from the experience. I don't anticipate seeing the kind of problems that Freeman mentioned.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.