Vendor interest in WiMax blossoms

CHICAGO ' Small deployments of fixed WiMax service for military and public-safety applications have begun in this country, but mobile WiMax is expected to be the real driver for the long-awaited wireless broadband service. Deployment of a mobile WiMax could begin as early as late this year, said Richard Gorman, mobility architect at Nortel Government Solutions, although early next year is more likely.

'When you're looking at mobile WiMax, you're looking at the next year or two,' Gorman said.

But manufacturers of carrier equipment and end-user devices are racing now to get WiMax products ready for what they see as a market ready to explode, and WiMax is a hot topic at this week's NXTcomm telecom industry trade show.

'The strong economy here seems to be translating to new companies at a more rapid pace than in Europe,' said Hakan Millroth, chief executive officer of Tail-F Systems, which is showing its WiMax network management software at NXTcomm. 'It wasn't that way two years or 18 months ago. The window is now. WiMax is new, it's hot, and everyone from the tier one equipment vendors to the startups is racing to get equipment out before it's too late.'

Momentum in WiMax deployment has shifted from Asia and Europe to North America, Hakan said. Sprint Nextel, of Reston, Va., has announced plans to deploy the world's most ambitious WiMax mobile network in the United States, with service expected to be available in the initial markets late this year. WiMax carrier Clearwire, of Kirkland, Wash., now offers portable WiMax service in a few select U.S. cities.

Companies wanting to take advantage of these developments already are fighting for U.S. market share. Tail-F is headquartered in Stockholm, but it has a U.S. headquarters in Leesburg, Va., and 80 percent of its sales are in the United States and Canada. Nortel also is committed to WiMax as a key technology for advanced wireless communications.

'There definitely is a lot of interest in government' about WiMax, said Gorman, who also said he is making about two presentations a month on the technology to potential government customers. 'People are starving for knowledge.'

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 Wi-Fi services and a competitor for last-mile technologies in areas where traditional wire-line solutions are impractical.

The 802.16 Air Interface Standard focuses on fixed broadband wireless access operating between 10 and 66 GHz or between 2 and 11 GHz. The first iteration, 802.16a, addressed the lower end of the spectrum. It is now at revision 802.16d. Another standard, 802.16e, addresses mobile applications, and that is where the action is expected to be.

Although WiMax provides greater speeds and longer range, Wi-Fi can serve most of the same functions as WiMax for fixed services. But in the mobile arena, security and quality-of-service elements inherent in WiMax are expected to give it an edge over Wi-Fi. Chipsets for WiMax service are available, and the WiMax Forum is in the process of certifying products for interoperability.

Nokia-Siemens Network, the product of a merger earlier this year, has announced that it intends to demonstrate mobile WiMax capability at the show between a Flexi base station and a modified version of its N770 Internet tablet mobile device. The N770 is built for Wi-Fi, but the test is expected to demonstrate how the service works with a handheld form factor.

Nokia plans to have a number of handheld WiMax devices ready for the market by 2008.

The lower-frequency spectrums in the 3.5-GHz band now being used in WiMax products are primarily for outdoor installations because they do not have the good penetration needed for interior use. They provide non-line-of-sight connections, which eases some of the difficulties in setting up base stations.

In spite of all this activity, deployment of the technology still is in its early stages. This year is still the year of the pilot program, Hakan said. But vendors see the market as real, and 'next year is when they see large rollouts of equipment.'

But a lot of educating still needs to be done among potential users. WiMax is wireless, and that means it is tied to the spectrum of radio frequencies.
What can be used where depends on the frequencies available to the user.

WiMax standards are written to specific bands, and going outside those bands means working with nonstandard products. A lot of RFPs for WiMax now ask for off-the-shelf products, Gorman said, but they also specify nonstandard frequencies. Some large deployments may not stick to the standards, but smaller deployments are not likely to stray too far.

If equipment does begin to ship in large quantities, it could mean a goldmine for companies such as Tail-f that support the equipment manufacturers with software. Traditionally, network equipment manufacturers have developed their own network management software. But as hardware becomes standardized, and the industry settles on Linux as a common operating system, a standard platform is emerging that third-party software companies can create standard applications for. Buying management software from a vendor can save as much as a year in getting a product to market, Hakan said, and cuts the expenses of maintaining an in-house staff for software maintenance.

Tail-F's network management software is one of the first packages to support the new NETCONF network management protocol. NETCONF is not specific to WiMax, but it enables automated configuration of devices. The protocol could be an enabling technology for WiMax because remote base stations for mobile applications will need to be frequently updated as new functionality and services are added to networks. Cisco, Juniper, Nortel and Ericsson are among the equipment companies pushing adoption of NETCONF.

So, if the equipment is ready, can the service be far behind? Hakan says no. 'Two years ago, there was no sense of urgency. It's a very different situation now.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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