Wagering on WiMax: Industry Seeks Credibility, Support

Despite demonstrations of support from Intel, the fledgling wireless technology faces an uncertain future.

On a blustery day in May, Intel scattered employees across Las Vegas to prove the merits of the wireless broadband technology known as WiMax.

The far-flung demonstration included live audio and video feeds from a golfer at the edge of the city, an Elvis impersonator cruising the Vegas Strip, and a guy perched atop the 1,149-foot Stratosphere hotel—where Intel Corp. had placed four directional antennas that made the demonstration possible.

At the controls was Sean Maloney, Intels Mobility Group general manager. From a conference room stage in the Mandalay Bay hotel, Maloney communicated with co-workers, showing a crowd of Interop trade show attendees that WiMax, while a bit choppy at times, is the real deal. All in all, it was a successful demonstration—but it wasnt all WiMax.

While the demonstration boards in the Mandalay Bay used an Intel chip set based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard, the bulk of the equipment in Intels demonstration comprised prestandard base stations from Alvarion Ltd. The demonstration itself ran in an unlicensed frequency band.


Intels CEO says WiMax is competitive with DSL and cable.

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"Pre-WiMax doesnt mean anything," said Mark Whitton, general manager of wireless solutions at Nortel Networks Ltd., in Brampton, Ontario, which is a proponent of WiMax and a member of the WiMax Forum. "It means its not WiMax. Were still a ways away."

For the past two years, the nascent WiMax technology has been something of a broadband media darling, promising versions that would offer both a last-mile substitution for a land-line Internet connection and a muscled-up version of Wi-Fi.

But now, even WiMax proponents are saying fixed-wireless flavors of the technology are best suited for Third World countries rather than the United States. As for the much-hyped mobile version of WiMax, there is still no standard, and, by the time products appear, it will face stiff competition from emerging third-generation cellular technologies.

The unclear road map and lukewarm commitment from equipment makers raise questions about the viability of WiMax in the enterprise and have industry insiders urging users to be wary of the technology, at least for now.

"Theres a lot of people saying that theyre going to do WiMax, but as we found out with other radio technologies, you have to run the whole race," said Whitton. "Seven years ago, [on the cellular side] there was TDMA [Time Division Multiple Access], CDMA [Code Division Multiple Access] and GSM [Global System for Mobile Communications], and they all had a path to 3G. Now, its only [variants of CDMA and GSM]. At this stage, being committed means developing prototypes and trying stuff out."

WiMaxs chief champion is Intel, a company with a good track record of wireless technology publicity. The vendor orchestrated a $300 million marketing campaign for Wi-Fi and the Centrino chip set, which now appears in the majority of Wi-Fi-enabled notebook computers, pushing Wi-Fi into the mainstream lexicon as a must-have technology.

"Were now teaching tens of millions of people a usage model for Wi-Fi," said Ron Peck, director of business development for WiMax at Intel, in Santa Clara, Calif. "Its the same usage model for WiMax."

But WiMax isnt Wi-Fi.

Next Page: Standards and Intels marketing muscle could help WiMax succeed.