Waiting on WiMax

CHICAGO'The United States is an insignificant portion of an already-small market for WiMax broadband wireless technology, industry spokesmen say. But the expected emergence later this year of equipment operating in U.S. frequency bands could help spark demand in this country.

The WiMax Forum, meeting this week during the GlobalComm trade show, certified the first interoperable products for the 802.16 Air Interface Standard in January. This was six months later than expected, but the certification process is expected to boost carrier confidence in the technology.

'There has been a little bit of a cloud over the market,' because of the lack of certified products, said Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing for Alvarion Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. 'The market has been relatively small.'

Alvarion claims 80 percent of the WiMax market, with installations in 30 countries. But none of those installations are in the United States. The U.S. market represents a chicken-and-egg dilemma for WiMax: WiMax is not being used here because standards-based equipment is not built for frequencies licensed in this country, and manufacturers are not making equipment for those frequencies because there is no demand for it.

In this country, fixed broadband wireless connections are being provided primarily with proprietary technologies, with some pre-standard WiMax tests and experiments.

'Europe and Asia are where the greatest opportunities for WiMax are,' said Jeff Orr, the WiMax Forum's director of marketing. 'For fixed wireless access, North America is not in the top three regions.'

WiMax is based on the evolving 802.16 family of standards for delivering high-bandwidth data over long distances. 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, addressed the lower end of the spectrum. Another standard, 802.16e, was approved in December to enable mobile applications.

O'Neal outlined three requisites for wide-scale adoption of WiMax in this country:
  • Development of standards with certified interoperable products.
  • Availability of licensed spectrum
  • Availability of self-installing, self-configuring customer premise equipment.

'The stars now are coming into alignment,' he said.

The WiMax Forum in April of 2005 selected Spanish testing firm Cetecom S.A. to perform certification testing.

'In January, we announced the first certified products,' Orr said. To date, 16 products from eight companies'a base station and subscriber station from each company'have been certified, and another 30 products are in the queue. An Asian certification lab is expected to begin accepting products for testing later this year, but there are no concrete plans yet for a U.S. lab.

O'Neal said more than 90 percent of WiMax deployments today have been in the 3.5 GHz frequency band. But that band is reserved for government and military use in this country, and commercial carriers who use the 2.3 and 2.5 GHz bands are waiting for vendors to develop products in those frequencies.

'Everyone is working on that,' O'Neal said.

But they are not here yet. Alvarion said last year it hoped to have a 2.5 GHz version of its BreezeMAX product available later this year. That schedule has slipped, but O'Neal said it probably would be available later this year. Alvarion's current 3.5 GHz version is undergoing certification testing and should complete the process this year.

Alvarion will is announcing a self-installing customer premises WiMax transceiver at GlobalComm. It is a desktop device with six interior antennas that will automatically optimize the signal and configure itself when plugged into a computer.

Voice over IP is drawing attention in the wireless as well as the wired world, and a group of companies are demonstrating toll-quality voice over WiMax at GlobalComm. Bandwidth allocation for quality of service is key to making voice applications acceptable, and that is being provided by CableMatrix Technologies Inc. of Des Plaines, Ill.

'We set up the amount of resources necessary for the call to go over the network with an acceptable quality,' said Jay Malin, vice president of business development. WiMax uses a signaling protocol similar to that used by cable. The demonstration uses a base station from VCom Inc. of Victoria, B.C., which also produces RF modulation equipment for the cable industry, and a media gateway and terminal adapter from Audiocodes Ltd. of San Jose, Calif.

The demo uses off-the-shelf equipment that could be deployed as soon as the WiMax service is being delivered, Malin said. The companies hope to trial it with a service provider soon.

'We're trying to avoid being a science experiment,' he said. 'We have provided a template for a WiMax provider.'

While WiMax has been slowly gathering momentum, the 802.11 family of WiFi standards has come to dominate wireless networking in this country. It is primarily an indoor, short-range technology used for wireless LANs, but in the absence of a long-range WiMax implementations, WiFi has been extending its reach into metro area implementations with mesh networking.

For the present, WiMax it is a fixed, outdoor broadband delivery technology, and its primary uses probably will be for backhauling other wireless networks, replacing cable in campus environments and delivering broadband to rural areas. But the 802.16e mobile standard could broaden the WiMax scope, bringing it into competition with WiFi for mobile networking.

Despite these overlaps, WiMax advocates see it as complementing WiFi technology rather than competing with it. They see WiFi dominating the short range, interior market and WiMax providing the big pipes and backhaul.

'I don't see one technology replacing another,' Orr said. He predicts WiMax eventually will take off in this country, 'but WiFi has a lot of headroom where its sweet spot will continue to grow. There really is no cap to it.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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