Intel's WiMax chip starts shipping in volume

WiMax broadband wireless technology will clear a hurdle Monday as Intel Corp. announces volume shipments of its Rosedale chip for the wireless broadband technology, people familiar with the company's plans said this week.

Intel has put its marketing weight behind WiMax for years as standards development dragged on, but the chip giant finally is supporting the technology the way it knows best, churning out silicon. Equipment vendors including Alvarion Ltd., Proxim Corp., Redline Communications Inc. and ZiMax Technologies Inc. all have announced agreements to use Intel silicon in products based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard that Rosedale addresses.

In addition, some equipment vendors will announce products on Monday using the chip, formally called the Intel Pro/Wireless 5116. Among them will be Redline, in Markham, Ontario, which will launch its RedMax line of customer premises equipment. The company will introduce a product with an outdoor antenna and an indoor box with connections for phone and broadband data service, said Kevin Suitor, vice president of business development. It will cost consumers less than $500, Suitor said. Redline currently is running 50 trials with service providers using its pre-WiMax product, called the AN-100, he said.

Intel is not the first chipmaker to announce WiMax silicon, but it carries a lot of weight as both a high-volume chip leader and the rich uncle of the WiMax family, ready to put marketing dollars behind the technology. Rosedale hitting the market marks a significant moment for WiMax, according to Michael Cai, an analyst at Parks Associates, in Dallas.

"The industry is really looking at Intel, because it's been positioned as the leader in the WiMax space," Cai said.

The next major step for WiMax will be product certification and interoperability testing by the WiMax Forum, the industry body moving to commercialize 802.16 technology. Industry observers expect 802.16-2004 products, which are designed to deliver broadband services to homes and offices without wires, to be tested by the forum in this year's third quarter and hit the market some time before year's end.

Rosedale is a "system on a chip" for customer premises devices that would send and receive data from a base station that could be several miles away. The chip includes a MAC (media access control) component for the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard, a "phy" (physical interface) element that uses OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), an integrated 10/100M bps (bit-per-second) Ethernet MAC for a home or office LAN, and a TDM (time-division multiplexing) controller interface to support voice and streaming data, according to Intel.

Intel integrated all those components on the chip as part of its focus on low-cost equipment that it believes will make wireless broadband a success. Some earlier wireless broadband technologies have stalled because of the cost of proprietary equipment and the need for engineers to set up a "line-of-sight" connection for each customer's antenna.

However, opinions are mixed on the potential for fixed WiMax, which in many parts of the world will compete against well-established DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem services. Even Intel has said the larger opportunity lies in IEEE 802.16e, a standard still under development that will allow for WiMax services to mobile devices such as notebook PCs. That technology is expected to hit the market in 2007 or 2008.

For fixed WiMax customer devices such as those based on Rosedale to take off in the market, they will first have to go below $200 in total cost, said Philip Solis, an analyst at ABI Research, in Oyster Bay, New York. That isn't likely to happen for two to three years, in his view. However, service providers could shield subscribers from some or all of that cost through subsidies, he said.

The fixed WiMax that Rosedale supports may be relegated to filling in where other broadband is not available in Western Europe and North America, according to some analysts, but it could have greater potential in less developed areas.

ZiMax, a subsidiary of Shenzhen, China-based ZTE Corp., expects initial response to its products to be strongest in China, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, according to James Jiang, general manager at ZiMax, which is based in San Diego. Analysts said countries such as India and China, which have dense populations and less broadband infrastructure in place, may be ripe for fixed WiMax. It's likely to show up in metropolitan areas first, but could extend out to rural villages if governments mandate widespread broadband coverage, said Parks Associates' Cai.

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