WiMax Faces Doubt, Despite Momentum

Intel is on track for a Centrino WiMax chip, but the wireless industry is still skeptical about the technology's potential.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—When asked for his take on the nascent wireless broadband technology known as WiMax, Brett Galloway put it like this: "WiMax is at the peak of its hype cycle and also at the peak of its confusion," said Galloway, vice president and general manager of the wireless networking business unit at Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

There are several factors casting doubt on the prospects of WiMax, including delays in certification testing, lack of definite carrier commitment, competition with other wireless technologies and expensive equipment.

But with promises of a Centrino notebook chip set that supports WiMax by 2007, Intel Corp. is leading a group of companies that continue to be WiMax champions.

The road map for WiMax calls initially for wireless, fixed last-mile connectivity and then eventually for mobile broadband connectivity that allows roaming among base stations.

Both fixed WiMax and mobile WiMax promise a range of several miles between client and base station and an average speed of as much as 40M bps per channel.

/zimages/1/28571.gifIEEE ratifies mobile WiMax standard. Click here to read more.

In promoting the fixed version, proponents have touted its potential to bridge the digital divide in third world countries that dont have access to land lines.

But industry executives at the WCA International Symposium and Business Expo here today are making it clear that the bottom line for WiMax is money.

Speaking to an audience filled with WiMax proponents, Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of the mobility group at Intel Corp., pointed to a slide that read: ALTRUISM DOES NOT EQUAL NOT-FOR-PROFIT.

"My point here is not too subtle," Maloney said. "All of us are driven by the desire ... but if we execute cleanly we ought to build a great deal of value for our investors.

"The challenge that we face over the next three to four years in the WiMax area is that we have to drive the price down," Maloney added. "All of us have to drive the deployment costs down so we can bridge that digital divide."

Initial fixed WiMax modems are expected to cost between $350 and $750, according to officials at the WiMax Forum, an industry marketing and certification body based in Mountain View, Calif.

The forum is expected to certify the first fixed WiMax products this week, after the IEEE made some last-minute changes to the specification at the end of 2005. (The WiMax Forum boasts some 350 members, although many of them—Cisco, for one—have yet to commit to the technology.)

Fixed WiMax proponents make the simple argument that rolling out wireless services is easier than rolling out wired ones.

"If you put copper or fiber you have to put it to a specific house, hoping the customer will buy it," said Tzvika Friedman, CEO of Alvarion Ltd. in Tel Aviv, Israel.

"We have to remember that all of us in the end will make this a profitable business to the operators."

In the United States, several major carriers have committed to trials of both fixed and mobile WiMax, but none has committed to a major rollout.

"Mobile WiMax will need to be under $100 to get into embedded computing devices," said Jeff Orr, director of marketing for the WiMax Forum. The forum plans to start certifying products based on mobile WiMax by the end of 2006, Orr said.

For its part, Intel plans to deliver a mobile WiMax version of its Centrino notebook chip set next year, Maloney said.

"Were on track with that," he said. "Weve reached the end of the beginning."

/zimages/1/28571.gifWiMax watchers admit that its unfit for the mainstream. Click here to read more.

Maloney also stressed the importance of interoperability testing within the WiMax community.

"We need to start planning for that now," Maloney said. "We dont want to duplicate what happened with 3G [cellular services], where roaming is difficult."

In the meantime, wireless carriers continue to roll out faster cellular services. And the IEEE is due to start ratifying a high-speed Wi-Fi standard called 802.11n by weeks end.

Because of this some companies are planning to rush their WiMax products to market.

"I see WiMax and 3G becoming more and more competitive," said Roger Dorf, CEO of Navini Networks Inc., in Richardson, Texas. "There may be some of us who are delivering products ahead of [official industry certification.]"

Other WiMax proponents remain more cautious.

"Anyone with any industry experience in Wi-Fi knows how long the standards efforts took," said Guy Kelhofer, president and CEO of NextNet Wireless Inc. in Minneapolis. "Until mobility is mature and ready for carrier-class deployments, WiMax wont be a disruptive technology. I dont see us as being competitive to 3G, at least in the near term."

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