Intel ships wireless broadband chips

WiMax, the long-awaited successor to Wi-Fi, provides data links at distances of up to 30 miles. Photos: Welcoming the WiMax chip

WASHINGTON--Wireless broadband has just taken a big leap forward.

Intel announced at an event here on Monday that it has begun sending WiMax chipsets to equipment manufacturers, which are planning to ship products to customers by this autumn.

WiMax chip

WiMax is the long-awaited industry standard called 802.16-2004 that serves as a partial successor to the wildly popular Wi-Fi protocol, which works over far shorter distances measured in feet rather than miles. WiMax provides data links at distances of up to 30 miles at a maximum speed of 70mbps (megabits per second).

If WiMax lives up to its promise, it could solve the dilemma of delivering zippy Internet connections in areas where the cost of running cables to homes and offices is prohibitively expensive.

"We want to enable the next billion broadband users," said Ron Peck, Intel's director of marketing for WiMax.

Even before WiMax products ship, boosters of the technology are already looking ahead to future applications.

WiMax access points are expected to start between $250 and $550 and fall gradually over time, with Intel estimating the cost approaching $50 by 2008. That would be cheap enough to include it in laptops, cell phones and other consumer gadgetry, which could support streaming video and voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.

Also on Monday, the WiMax Forum announced that it has begun to set up a lab for certifying 802.16-2004 products starting in July. WiMax manufacturers aren't required to wait for the official stamp of approval, but companies that were interviewed indicated they would. Proxim said it expected its customers would demand formal certification.

Complicating widespread adoption are some lingering regulatory hassles. There is no global frequency range set aside for WiMax, which could cause compatibility problems for travelers.

In the United States, broadband providers can choose to use unlicensed spectrum in the 5.7 to 5.8GHz range, but many fear it will get clogged and be unsuitable for real-time purposes such as telephone calls. As a result, some providers are looking to license spectrum space instead.

"I would like to see the U.S. have a more pro-active policy instead of hindering the progress of broadband," said Umesh Amin, Speakeasy's vice president of WiMax initiatives. Amin said Speakeasy, which is planning to offer WiMax service in the United States, would like to see the Federal Communications Commission free up more spectrum with no strings attached.

Wireless broadband connections that can span many miles are not new, but they've suffered from two drawbacks: their proprietary nature and relatively high prices. WiMax addresses both of those problems.

Intel is not alone among chipmakers in embracing the WiMax standard. Fujitsu is readying its own chipset, as is a French start-up called Sequans Communications. In addition to Speakeasy, AT&T, Qwest and Towerstream also are planning WiMax service in the United States.

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