Like many technologies before it, including digital switching and IPTV, WiMAX technology’s roots are being laid in rural markets. The first WiMAX deployments are happening in towns like Madison, South Dakota and Rexburg, Idaho, and are being deployed by small independent operators not familiar to most, including DigitalBridge Communications and Sioux Valley Wireless. It’s not surprising. Many new technologies are vetted out in this manner, only to eventually gain mass market attention in large urban areas. IPTV is probably the most recent example. I remember listening to rural telcos like CC Communications of Fallon, Nevada and Chibardun Telephone of Cameron, Wisconsin talking about their pioneering video over VDSL deployments way back in 1997, almost a decade before AT&T began to get all of the attention. This scenario is repeating itself with WiMAX. The important early lessons about WiMAX and its capabilities/limitations will be played out in Madison, not in Washington DC or Baltimore.
These rural markets are also great laboratories for the competitive impact of WiMAX. DigitalBridge and Sioux Valley are deploying in some markets where either DSL and cable modem (or both) are present. It will be interesting to watch how consumers react to this new broadband option. Will the broadband portability and mobility that WiMAX provides trump wireline broadband, or simply augment it? Will consumers abandon wireline broadband in favor of broadband wireless WiMAX in much the same way many consumers are abandoning wireline voice in favor of wireless? In a recent interview, Don Marker, CEO of Sioux Valley Wireless told me, “The service is portable…something that no other existing service can offer. In the long run, it is very likely that our portable/mobile service will displace fixed services just as cellular service has done with fixed telephone service.” All interesting and important questions, with huge implications for the entire telecom industry. Implications that are being revealed early on in places like Butte, Montana.