WiMax vendors creep ahead, look to mobility

WiMax equipment and component makers this week announced steady progress on fixed wireless broadband products but looked eagerly to a future mobile WiMax as industry participants gathered at the Wireless Communications Alliance's WCA International Symposium & Business Expo in San Jose, California.

With a standard for fixed WiMax complete and a product certification program in the works, vendors are preparing to ship interoperable base stations and customer premises equipment (CPE) later this year. They see the technology as an alternative to stationary broadband services such as DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable. The WiMax Forum industry group is expected to start certifying interoperability of products around the middle of this year. However, some vendors are now focusing greater attention on a mobile form of WiMax that is still being standardized and is expected to hit the market next year.

Tireless WiMax backer Intel Corp. announced it is teaming up with one of China's biggest telecommunications equipment makers on both generations of WiMax. ZiMax Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Shenzhen, China-based ZTE Corp., will use Intel's upcoming Rosedale chipset in infrastructure and CPE equipment for fixed WiMax. ZiMax, which has offices in San Diego, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, plans to begin shipping fixed WiMax gear this year for carriers in China, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, according to the company.

Intel is confident that Rosedale-based equipment will find a receptive market for fixed WiMax services, but it has higher hopes for services that will work on the road.

"Rosedale starts the WiMax clock ... in terms of building market momentum," said Scott Richardson, general manager of Intel's Broadband Wireless Division, in an interview at the conference. However, "the mobile opportunity ends up being the largest opportunity," he said. Intel expects to integrate mobile WiMax into its Centrino chip set along with Wi-Fi beginning in late 2006, with a wide rollout in 2007.

The companies also will jointly contribute to the development of standards and specifications for both fixed and mobile WiMax, said Sean Maloney, Intel executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Communications Group, in a keynote address Wednesday at WCA.

A key to the success of mobile WiMax will be more unified specifications, Richardson said. Currently the WiMax Forum industry group defines many implementation options through what it calls "profiles," he said. That may work for fixed WiMax because the customer equipment for that technology stays at the subscriber's home, but it won't work for a mobile technology in which a device could be brought to many different countries, he said.

Ultimately, Intel would like to see the WiMax Forum narrow the options down from something on the order of 20 to just a few, Richardson said.

Intel and ZiMax also will push for harmonized allocation of spectrum for WiMax, with an eye to 2.5GHz as a band that could be opened to mobile WiMax in many countries, allowing for international roaming, Richardson said.

RHK Inc. analyst Nitin Shah warned that getting many countries to agree on use of a spectrum band is a tall order. The 2.5GHz band is assigned to wireless broadband services in much of the Western Hemisphere, but not in many other parts of the world, Shah said.

In China, the government is preparing to allocate spectrum in the 2.5GHz band and could open it to WiMax, said James Jiang, president of ZiMax, in an interview at the conference. However, ZiMax has high hopes that carriers in China will be able to use mobile or fixed WiMax in a block of spectrum around 3.5GHz, he said. All six major telecommunications carriers have licenses in the 3.5GHz band, he said. In particular, China Telecommunications Corp. and China Network Communications Group Corp. (China Netcom) are looking for ways to deliver mobile services and may turn to WiMax, according to Jiang. He expects a decision from the government on use of WiMax by the end of the year.

Other vendors this week announced steps toward availability of fixed WiMax.

Redline Communications Inc. used the show to preview the AN-100U, a platform that the company says is fully compliant with IEEE 802.16-2004, the standard for fixed WiMax. Redline expects the AN-100U, which can be configured as either a base station or a high-end CPE geared toward businesses, to be generally available early in the second half of this year. The Markham, Ontario, company will ship the product as soon as its low-cost consumer CPE, based on Rosedale and expected to cost less than $500, is completed, said Vice President of Business Development Kevin Suitor.

Lucent Technologies Inc. said it will integrate WiMax capability into its portfolio of offerings for carriers through a partnership with Alvarion Ltd. Carriers will be able to deploy Alvarion's BreezeMax pre-WiMax system using Lucent's IP Multimedia Subsystem, which is designed for offering multiple communications services across a variety of wired and wireless networks. Both companies are members of the WiMax Forum and will seek WiMax certification for the product, according to a statement.

WaveSat Inc. announced at the conference that its DM256 WiMax chip is shipping in volume. The DM256 is a "phy," or physical layer, chip, which essentially plays the role of a modem. System manufacturers will combine the chip with a MAC (media access control) processor and an RF (radio frequency) component, said Francois Draper, vice president of sales and marketing at Montreal-based WaveSat. The DM256 can be used in both base stations and customer premises equipment, he said. Draper expects the chip to appear in systems costing about $250 to $300 that should begin shipping in the second quarter.

Equipment maker Aperto Networks Inc. expects to have products ready for the beginning of WiMax Forum testing, said Dean Chang, vice president of marketing. The company has waited longer than it expected for chips to become available, but such delays are typical, he said. Aperto sees strong demand for fixed WiMax in less developed countries, but standards are crucial to push up volume and drive down prices to what those markets demand, Chang said.

One industry analyst downplayed the potential of fixed WiMax, at least in countries like the U.S.

"Right now, all it is, is a DSL or cable modem replacement, and it's not a very cost effective replacement," said Tad Neeley, of RHK, in South San Francisco, California.

Mobile is where the potential is, he said. As cell phone customers start to use 3G networks for demanding applications such as downloading presentations, those networks could run out of capacity quickly, Neeley said. Then WiMax may save the day.

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