Vendors, carriers eye WiMax wireless broadband

Manufacturers and service providers looked at the emerging WiMax wireless technology this week and saw a possible rival to wired broadband services - at the end of what some see as a long standardization process.

"We believe that WiMax can happen, and be widely deployed, and be a big deal in the next three years the same way Wi-Fi has been a big deal the last two years," said Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's communications group, in a keynote address at the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) International Technical Symposium & Business Expo in San Jose.

The conference focused on wireless broadband technology, in particular WiMax, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 family of standards. The WiMax Forum, a group of vendors and service providers, initially will certify products based on the 802.16d standard, designed for wireless base stations with a range as long as 50 kilometers. It is a point-to-multipoint technology, so it doesn't require a direct line of sight to the customer. A later version of the standard, 802.16e, will provide a relatively simple upgrade to access points to support mobile customers, according to François Draper, vice president of sales and marketing at Wavesat Inc., in Dorval, Quebec, and chairman of memberships at the WiMax Forum.

A single base station could transmit hundreds of megabits per second of data, but the standard doesn't define how much of that capacity a service provider should give an individual customer, Draper said. Carriers typically would offer 2M bit/sec or more to a small or midsized business, and 300K bit/sec to 400K bit/sec to consumers, he said.

Intel, which plans to make WiMax chips, expects the technology to hit the market next year for stationary broadband connectivity to businesses and homes and backhaul from Wi-Fi hot spots, Maloney said. Testing has shown such a technology can support the kinds of services associated with today's DSL and cable modem services, including video, to homes and businesses in dense urban areas. Chips for WiMax products will start hitting the market this year, according to Guy Côté, director of international sales at Wavesat. The fabless semiconductor company aims to offer sample quantities of a chip in May and ship in volume by year-end.

Intel is placing its faith in standardization, which has boosted product volume and slashed prices on IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN equipment. That scenario also looks rosy for service providers that hope to use wireless for affordable broadband in developing countries, according to at least one speaker at the conference. However, some participants voiced concern over the time required for standardization.

The 802.16d standard should be essentially complete next month and approved in March, Draper said. However, the WiMax Forum probably won't certify any service provider equipment until the first quarter of 2005, after defining and carrying out a testing system, Draper said.

Meanwhile, the IEEE 802.16e working group probably will complete its specification at roughly the same time that the first 802.16d products are being certified.

Mobile operator Nextel is studying wireless broadband technologies, including WiMax, said Executive Vice President and CTO Barry West in a keynote address at the conference. Nextel has licensed Multipoint Multichannel Distribution Service (MMDS) spectrum, in the range of 2.5 GHz to 2.7 GHz, which is one area where WiMax could be used. However, West added that he is concerned about the length of the standardization process. Nextel might adopt a proprietary system if delays were too long, he said.

Sprint, which also licenses MMDS spectrum and is exploring wireless broadband services, shares West's concern, said Todd Rowley, vice president of spectrum management and business development, in an interview after West's keynote.

WiMax's Draper defended the organization's certification effort and pointed out that the first key standard, 802.16d, is only about a month away from completion.

"It's true, standards processes do take a long time," Draper said in response to those concerns. "It's a lengthy process if you're going to do it right," he said.

Wireless broadband might make big waves in the service-provider business, West said. Nextel sees itself potentially competing against cable TV companies as well as land-line phone companies. It could offer streaming video over wireless broadband and also might offer a cell phone that becomes a Wi-Fi cordless phone when the customer is at home or in the office, West said.

BellSouth also is studying wireless broadband, particularly for providing high-speed Internet access to potential customers in less dense areas that have been left out of broadband because of deployment costs, said Sid Ganju, executive director of corporate development at BellSouth.

WiMax may open even more doors in the developing world, where saving the cost of fiber and copper installation is an especially attractive proposition. Neotec, a consortium of mobile operators in Brazil, has tested a wireless broadband system with good results, said José Luiz Frauendorf, Neotec's executive director. The network, a proprietary system from Minneapolis-based NextNet Wireless, delivered as much as 2M bit/sec and had a range of 2 km to 5 km in urban areas, depending on density, Frauendorf said. It uses spectrum between 2.5 GHz and 2.7 GHz, which Brazil's mobile operators already have and are now using for television services.

Neotec wants a system like NextNet's to deliver affordable broadband service without the need for laying wires, with a goal of charging the equivalent of US$20 per month, Frauendorf said. DSL currently is available in parts of Brazil for about $30 per month, he said. Brazil is expected to have 3.2 million broadband users by 2006, and winning just 10 percent of them would be worth it, he said.

The competition that comes from a standard technology is one of the keys to that plan, Frauendorf said. Neotec will have to see equipment prices fall before it can reach its targeted monthly rate, he said.

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