Intel Corp. and Proxim Inc. are lending further credence to WiMax with significant co-development plans for the emerging wireless broadband standard.
The two companies are co-developing base station and subscriber unit architectures that support WiMax, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 protocol and promises speeds approaching those of Fast Ethernet. Intel is licensing Proxim software, and Proxim plans to use Intel silicon in future WiMax systems, which are expected to be expensive initially but achieve costs similar to Wi-Fi WLAN (wireless LAN) products eventually.
Still, even Proxim officials acknowledged that the technology has been overpublicized to the point of confusion, as has happened with various wireless protocols in the past. “I think some expectations have been raised too high,” said Kevin Duffy, chief operating officer of Proxim, in Sunnyvale, Calif. “I wouldnt put it at the Bluetooth level, but I think the timetables have been overhyped. Its really next year and the year after.”
One confusing issue with WiMax is that there is more than one version of 802.16 and more than one usage model.
802.16a, which came first, loosely defined rules for fixed wireless transmission in the 2GHz-to-11GHz frequency range. Next came 802.16d, which fixed some of the errata in the 802.16a standard. Intel and Proxims initial products will be based on 802.16d, which promises average speeds ranging from 15 to 70M bps, with non-line-of-sight distances of 2 to 5 kilometers and line-of-sight distances of up to 50 km.
As a fixed wireless technology, 802.16d essentially competes with DSL, cable and other high-speed land-line technologies. This month, The Management Network Group Inc. (or TMNG) and Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc. released a study that found that fixed WiMax “should not dislodge or disrupt existing broadband service in urban and suburban areas, but it could be attractive in less competitive areas, for example, rural geographies.”
“The point-to-point wireless space isnt a huge space yet,” said Abner Germanow, an analyst at IDC, in Framingham, Mass. “Today, Proxim is one of the largest players in it, so it makes sense for Intel [to team up]. The number of opportunities that Intel has isnt huge.”
To that end, most of the carriers that have voiced plans for WiMax are those that serve underdeveloped countries. Domestic carriers, as well as some major hardware vendors, including Nokia Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., have yet to commit.
“There are no specific product plans for WiMax,” said Bill Rossi, vice president and general manager of Ciscos wireless networking business unit, in San Jose, Calif., which has dabbled in fixed wireless services in the past. While WiMax makes sense in terms of its performance, Rossi said, “Its not about the technology—its about the carriers.”
Client and back-end products based on 802.16d are expected to hit the market in the middle of next year, according to the WiMax Forum, the multivendor industry association tasked with interoperability testing. (Nokia, a founding member, pulled out of the forum earlier this year.)
The forum expects to begin testing products in March, with commercial availability expected the following June.
Eventually, there will be a mobile version of WiMax, which will allow roaming between base stations and act essentially as a much-faster version of Wi-Fi. This will be based on the 802.16e protocol, which wont be ratified before next year. Products based on 802.16e wont likely hit the market before 2006. Intel plans to include 802.16e support in its Centrino chip sets between 2006 and 2007, depending on the ratification schedule, said officials in Santa Clara, Calif. The Centrinos focus is mobility, not fixed wireless, but the WiMax road map necessitates standing before roaming.
“The long-term goal for Intel is on the e-market, particularly on the client side,” Proxims Duffy said. “But in order to get to e, you have to get the base-line technology. We have to work together first to get d.”
The spectrum on which WiMax will run, 2GHz through 11GHz, is a wide swath. The WiMax Forum this month announced plans to issue usage models among three specific licensed and unlicensed bands, with official designation profiles expected in September.
Some prospective customers said that they remain pragmatic about WiMaxs time frame and cost but that they definitely see a potential need. “My sense from the industry analysts is that WiMax will not be deployed until 2006 and will likely cost $200 per month when initially released,” said John Halamka, CIO of CareGroup Healthcare System, in Boston. “Ive not heard from any of our major carriers that they are planning a WiMax rollout at this point. But there certainly is a need for increased wide-area wireless bandwidth. At present, GSM/GPRS [Global System for Mobile Communications/General Packet Radio Service] is just too slow for clinical transactions such as e-prescribing, and [Wi-Fi] is too physically limiting.”