WiMax wings into the wild world of wireless

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Tired of new wireless technologies? Then stop reading. Because here's a story about a new wireless system that could someday eclipse the Wi-Fi service you've just begun to understand.

The technology, called WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), is winning over plenty of followers while quickly gaining momentum on the standards front -- despite high-profile skeptics such as Texas Instruments Inc. (TI). That was the general consensus of industry experts attending a crowded workshop earlier this week at the Broadband World Forum in Venice.

"According to a study by Juniper Research (Ltd.), only half of all households in Europe will have broadband access by 2008 due to poor or nonexistent cable infrastructure or high-speed line systems being too complicated or expensive to deploy," said Andreas Greil, vice president of product management in the information and communication network division of Siemens AG. "There's a huge opportunity for WiMax to fill this gap."

Some, in fact, view WiMax not only as a wireless alternative to DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), cable and leased line services but also someday as a rival to mobile telephony.

"Never bet against mobility," said John Krzywicki, president of The Management Network Group Inc. (TMNG). "I estimate that a mobile solution for WiMax is only two to three years away."

Such optimism, of course, is to be expected at a broadband conference. But experts here seemed eager to avoid the hype and focus instead on WiMax's progress -- and the challenges that lie head.

WiMax technology, based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.16 standard, can extend broadband wireless over longer distances and at higher speeds than current Wi-Fi or Bluetooth systems. Its access range, for instance, is up to around 30 miles (48 kilometers), compared to Wi-Fi's 300 feet (91 meters) and Bluetooth's 30 feet. It supports data transmission speeds up to 70M bps (bits per second), compared to the popular 802.11b Wi-Fi standard's 11M bps or the 802.11a's 54M bps.

In addition to its distance and speed advantages, WiMax doesn't require line-of-site transmission.

The WiMax Forum, established in 2001 by a number of industry heavyweights, has been working on standards certification and interoperability testing. The first generation WiMax systems, based on the 802.16-2004 standard, could ship as earlier as this year. Alvarion Ltd, in Tel Aviv, Israel, is targeting the second half of 2004 for the delivery of products with chips from Intel Corp., according to Alvarion vice president of marketing Rudy Leser.

Many experts expect WiMax service to be deployed in rural areas, where high-speed cable infrastructure is either poor or nonexistent. Some also see opportunities to use the technology for backhauling traffic between Wi-Fi hot spots, as well as for creating large wide-area hot spots.

Another WiMax standard under development is 802.16e, which provides mobility. Similar to digital mobile systems such as GSM (Global Standard for Mobile Communications), this standard will support seamless hand-off when users move around within the network.

Standardization work on 802.16e is expected to be completed in the second half of 2006, with service roll-out planned for 2007, Leser said.

Further down the development pipeline is 802.20, also known as Mobile-FI. "This standard is designed from ground up as a mobile system," said Maximilian Riegel, head of advanced standardization at Siemens. "Although I don't think 802.20 technology will compete directly with 3G (third-generation) mobile systems, it will certainly provide a high degree of mobility."

The 802.20 standard is designed to support connections up to 1.5M bps in devices moving at 120 km per hour, according to Christopher Rogers technology strategist at Intel.

As euphoric as some experts were about WiMax at the Broadband World workshop, many pointed to challenges that still lie ahead, particularly on the spectrum front.

While Wi-Fi technology has blossomed in an environment of noisy, unlicensed spectrum, WiMax will need to move into less crowded bands for continuity and quality of service reasons, according to a study conducted by TMNG. Many of these are licensed, such as 2.5-GHz and 3.5-GHz. Licensed bands are subject to regulation and, in many cases, cost a fee.

One unlicensed band under consideration is 5-GHz, which, however, is also used by Wi-Fi 802.11a. Unlicensed spectrum tends to be crowded because it lacks regulation and fees, and must therefore be closely managed to assure quality.

"We have no spectrum for WiMax in Europe at the moment," said Siemens' Riegel. "We have had discussions on the issue in Europe but have reached no conclusion. National regulators and the European Commission have agreed to make a decision on WiMax spectrum by 2007."

Meanwhile, some manufacturers are voicing their doubts about WiMax. In an interview on Tuesday, Joseph Crupi, vice president of TI's Broadband Communications Group, said the chip maker remains unconvinced that the new wireless technology will revolutionize the way broadband Internet services are delivered to homes and offices.

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