The State of WiMAX

— April 01, 2006

WiMAX. It's like Wi-Fi -- but everywhere. A single base station can blanket square miles of city with wireless data access at wireline broadband speeds. It's exciting, it's over-hyped and it's finally (just about) here.

The technology has high-profile support, with Intel being a big booster. "Intel's goal is to work with the industry to develop a broad ecosystem for enabling standards-based, innovative and cost-effective WiMAX platforms," said Joe Nardone, general manager of Intel's WiMAX solutions division. Intel recently demonstrated an integrated mobile WiMAX chipset and committed to delivering a mobile WiMAX PC Card in the second half of the year. The company has also showcased a single-chip Wi-Fi/WiMAX radio for laptops, which underscores its vision of a super-Centrino future of always-connected mobile computing.
However, WiMAX will likely first gain traction with a fixed version that provides wireless last-mile Internet connection for businesses and homes and point-to-point links between buildings. "We're seeing a lot of activity in the near term with alternative and mid- to small-tier [wireless] carriers," said Manish Gupta, VP of marketing and alliances for Aperto, one of the first companies to field WiMAX-certified gear. "TowerStream and others like them are providing multiple-T1 services to small and medium-size businesses."

"For the residential market, WiMAX will provide broadband service in areas where it's too costly to build out copper or cable to support DSL or cable broadband services," said Phil Solis, senior analyst of mobile wireless technologies at ABI Research.

As always the question is, when? "Portable WiMAX could happen today," said Aperto's Gupta ("portable" in WiMAX terms means "fixed"; the receiver won't have connectivity while in motion, but will work wherever you plunk it down). Indeed, wireless broadband operators such as Clearwire have already deployed "pre-WiMAX" networks based on the underlying WiMAX specification but not officially approved by the WiMAX Forum certification body. It's just a short step from there to an official WiMAX deployment. However, true mobile WiMAX, Intel's grail, is still a ways off. Gupta estimated that we might be walking around with WiMAX-connected laptops in 2007 or 2008, with cellular-like mobility (staying connected while doing 70 mph) following in 2009 or 2010.

"[Intel's PC] Card may be out before there's a commercial network for it to be used on," said ABI's Solis, which he explained may help get the WiMAX ball rolling anyway, since service providers might balk at building networks if no client devices are available. This echoes Intel's successful Wi-Fi strategy: integrating the technology into notebooks encourages network build out.

Sprint Nextel is the only major U.S. wireless operator to vocally endorse WiMAX so far; it owns big chunks of the 2.5GHz spectrum that WiMAX can operate on. The big American carriers seem more interested in monetizing their massive 3G investments than building out a new network. Aperto's Gupta said most early WiMAX rollouts will happen elsewhere, with the United States making up 20 percent of the global WiMAX market over the next three years.

"WiMAX does have a hope," affirmed Glen LeBlanc, research director of wireless services for The NPD Group. He pointed to the opportunities it creates for smaller providers, while noting that it also has friends in high places. "Intel is a heavyweight and can make it happen," he said.

Peter M. Ferenczi is a freelance writer based in Paris.

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