Prospects for WiMax networks have brightened, thanks to an official decision to accept it as a 3G standard, thus allowing operators to run WiMax in spectrum designed for 3G phone networks.

The WiMax 802.16 standard has been approved by telecoms standards body, the ITU, as a 3G standard, part of its IMT-2000 family of protocols. "ITU approval for mobile WiMax dramatically increases the odds that it can be deployed more widely by not requiring special approval or specific bands," said Glenn Fleishman of WiMax Networking News. "It also provides mobile WiMax as a migration possibility for carriers that haven't yet deployed 3G."

WiMax is designed to be deployed in licensed spectrum, but most radio spectrum is licensed for a specific use, or a precise technology. The few commercial WiMax networks being built, such as Pipex's Freedom4 in the UK and Sprint's Xohm in the US, are mostly based on spectrum issued for fixed broadband before WiMax was developed.

"The decision to approve the WiMax Forum's version of IEEE Standard 802.16 as an IMT-2000 technology significantly escalates opportunities for global deployment, especially within the 2.5 - 2.69GHz band, to deliver mobile Internet to satisfy both rural and urban market demand," said the WiMax Forum in a statement.

"I can't say I'm overly surprised by this, especially given the recent ramp-up in announcements and perceived credibility that the technology has garnered," said Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. Even with this standards boost, he thinks we are still two to five years from having large-scale WiMax networks in a significant number of countries, as we still have to wait for 2.5GHz auctions, network built-out, and more mature devices.

At this point, WiMax will have to compete with other established 3G standards which are building on a penetration of three billion cellular subscribers, and have an upgrade path through HSPA towards a long-term evolution (LTE) standard, which could include WiMax. Other 3G standards include W-CDMA, the next generation of GSM, and CDMA2000, the next generation of the CDMA mobile standard used in the United States. As a broadband replacement, it will be up against DSL, which has around 500 million homes.

Till now, WiMax's best prospects for deployment have been technology-neutral licensing. Ofcom and other regulators have decided to allow any appropriate technology on licensed spectrum, to avoid hobbling new technology.

"It'll be interesting to see if this means there will be some back-pedalling on the other parallel regulatory approach to getting WiMax accepted - technology neutrality," said Bubley. "Now that WiMAX is a member of the 3G club, perhaps it'll decide that exclusivity isn't so bad after all...."