Industry expects demand for wireless broadband

CHICAGO'Network equipment manufacturers are banking on a pent-up demand for broadband access to drive the market for a new wireless service called WiMAX.

WiMAX is based on the evolving 802.16 family of standards for delivering high-bandwidth data transmission over long distances. It is seen as a wide-area complement to the popular 802.11 WiFi services.

Certification for WiMAX interoperability is not expected for at least six months, but products already are appearing.

'We're building the airplane while we're flying it,' said Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing for Alvarion Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif. 'It's a risk-based model. But in our corner of the world, we're comfortable with the risk.'

Alvarion, a member of both the IEEE 802.16 working group and the WiMAX Forum, is one of several companies demonstrating or discussing WiMAX technology at the SuperComm trade show this week.

Commitments from chipmakers such as Intel Corp. and Fujitsu Microelectronics America Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., are making equipment manufacturers confident, said Keith Doucet, vice president of marketing for Redline Communications Inc. of Toronto. Both Alvarion and Redline are offering 802.16 access nodes.

Carriers have been waiting for the technology, Doucet said. 'The market response has been overwhelming.'

The 802.16 Air Interface Standard focuses on fixed broadband wireless access operating between 10 and 66 GHz or from 2 to 11 GHz. The first iteration, 802.16a, addresses the lower end of the spectrum. It is now at revision 802.16d; 802.16e, which will address mobile applications, is in the works.

Technical specifications accommodate speeds up to 268Mbps, but actual performance varies considerably, depending on how it is implemented. Redline's Access Node 100 will deliver about 50Mbps of usable bandwidth in each channel.

At high data rates the AN-100 has a range of about 10 miles. At lower rates it can reach as far as 60 miles.

Interoperability testing between suppliers probably will begin late this year or early next year, with certified products appearing in late 2005, said Alan Menezes, vice president of marketing for Aperto Networks Inc. of Milpitas, Calif.

O'Neal calls the standard 'a compendium of cool features. You can't really implement it whole cloth.'

The WiMAX Forum was established to define system profiles for workable implementations and to certify products to those profiles. Chipsets are not expected until this fall at the earliest and the forum probably will not be ready to begin certification until next year, but that has not stopped the introduction of products. Redline designed its own chips for the AN-100 rather than wait on the big suppliers.

There is a lot of talk about the potential for WiMAX to bring broadband to homes, but that probably is not feasible with current technology at current prices, observers say. Redline has not even released the price of its AN-100 yet. But Doucet said the similarly featured AN-50, which has a range of about 20 miles, sells for $5,000.

Doucet said the company is working to bring down the price of the AN-100. A price in the $300 range would be necessary before it becomes practical for the residential market, he said. That probably is about a year away.

Early adopters of the technology are municipalities that want to offer it as a utility, and wireless-service providers carving out niches for themselves in hard-to-reach areas not addressed by traditional ISPs and carriers.

Traditional wireline telecom and Internet service providers probably will follow in a second phase of adoption, said Greg Richardson, mobility practice director for Siemens Business Services, a subsidiary of Siemens Corp. He said providers can divide the service into T1-sized channels and offer them to business and enterprises.

Richardson expects to see interoperability standards create a sharp uptick in demand for WiMAX.

'The Internet has outgrown dialup,' he said, and DSL, cable and fiber connections to the home have failed to satisfy the demand for big residential pipes.

How quickly we can expect to see the results of that uptick in the United States is hard to say.

'There is an art in wireless, and sometimes not as much science as you would like,' Richardson said. Good wireless connections require close attention to radio frequency profiles at each end when installing equipment.

The lower frequency spectrums now being used in 802.16 products are mainly for outdoor installations, because they do not have the good penetration needed for interior uses. They provide non-line-of-sight connections, which eases some of the difficulties in setting up base stations.

Redline improves the AN-100's reliability by using orthogonal frequency division modulation, which breaks up each channel into multiple small carrier waves. Data flows are repeated for redundancy.

'We take the hit up front,' Doucet said, reducing usable bandwidth from 72 to 50Mbps in exchange for reliability.

Most 802.16 installations so far have been overseas. Aperto has its transmitters in 45 countries. Alvarion's BreezeMAX access node has six customers so far, in Central Asia and Europe.

Foreign adoption is partly because amortization rules make network investments less attractive now in this country, O'Neal said. Uncertainty about spectrum allocation in the bands used by WiMAX also is slowing adoption here, he said. U.S. carriers and service providers are in testing phases, 'waiting to be impressed.'

Alvarion, Redline and Aperto all have great hopes for a federal WiMAX market. WANs and MANs for office campuses and military bases would be ideal applications, they say. But like most of the U.S. market, the feds are in a testing, not an adopting, stage.

'I think they will go there ultimately, but vendors aren't holding their breath,' O'Neal said.

Federal customers are interested in off-the-shelf products and services, he said, and carriers are waiting for certified interoperability before adding WiMAX to their shelves.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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