It wasn’t long ago that the cutting-edge wireless standard known as WiMax elicited more skepticism than bullishness. That may be changing. And for cable operators, WiMax’s recent momentum presents both a competitive challenge and a big opportunity all rolled into one. If MSOs play their cards right, the opportunity could greatly outweigh the threat. Here’s a quick primer. WiMax is the buzzword assigned to the 802.16 standard, which comes from the same 802.xx family of standards that govern 802.11-based devices using popular WiFi networks. WiMax is different: Unlike WiFi, whose signals only go a few hundred feet from the base station and require relatively "fixed" objects (a laptop sitting on a table, for example) to work well, WiMax has a range that can span several miles and a mobile variation (802.16e) that can funnel broadband speeds to devices on the go. Of course, citywide hot spots could mean new competition. But it could also provide last-mile support for MSOs that don’t want to run wires to outlying areas—not to mention a new option for pushing multimedia services out to mobile devices. This may explain why cable partner Sprint Nextel announced last month that it would work with WiMax cheerleaders Intel and Motorola, along with Samsung, in a multibillion dollar effort to deploy WiMax over the next two years. That should give Sprint joint venture partners Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Advance/Newhouse potential business opportunities. In addition, the Sprint-MSO joint venture has bid more than $2 billion in the FCC’s advanced wireless services (AWS) auction. (The Sprint-MSO camp faces intense competition from Verizon Wireless and, to a lesser degree, AT&T’s Cingular for those same licenses.) The question is to what degree MSOs can capitalize on WiMax. Sprint already has a large swath of 2.5 GHz spectrum earmarked for mobile WiMax, and analyst Derek Kerton of The Kerton Group posits that "perhaps the MSOs see this as an unbeatable advantage, in which it’s better to join ’em" than try to beat ’em. But big risks remain. "While the Sprint-MSO partnership is very complementary, there is risk for the MSOs, in that Sprint may change their mind someday, or may get bought by another telco," Kerton adds. Ah, the wonders of shifting alliances. When it comes to new technologies such as those tied to the WiMax standard, trust that all sides will partner only as long as it serves each side equally. But then again, that’s the nature of competition. Michael is executive editor of CableFAX Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.