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Intel braves new world of WiMax

The wireless broadband technology has the potential to be as convenient as Wi-Fi--but it's still a few years away from being widely available, an Intel executive says.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--An emerging wide-area wireless broadband technology known as WiMax shows promise as a "last mile" solution for bringing high-speed Internet access into homes--but it's still a few years away from general availability, according to an Intel executive.

"WiMax can be a big deal in the next five years--the way Wi-Fi has been over the last two years," Intel Executive Vice President Sean Maloney said at the Wireless Communications Association conference here Wednesday. "Getting fiber would be ideal...but the cost economics (of installations), about $300 per square foot in San Francisco, are pushing away from (broadband) to wireless."

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The 802.16a standard was approved in January of last year and the WiMax Forum, an industry group of 67 companies, is promoting the standard under the name WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. WiMax networks have a range of up to about 30 miles with data transfer speeds of up to 70mbps.

WiMax is viewed as a cheaper alternative to digital subscriber lines and cable broadband access, because the installation costs of wireless infrastructure are minimal, when compared with the wired versions, which can involve laying cables and ripping up buildings and streets, in some cases.

WiMax is not yet a reality, considering that even chips based on the technology are not currently available. Venture capital is pouring into WiMax, however, according to Maloney, and companies are preparing to meet demand.

Intel is expected to begin shipping WiMax chips in the second half of this year. The company will manufacture chips based on the 802.16d standard, which is meant for wireless high-speed connections to antennas.

Outdoor installations of WiMax antennas will begin in the first half of 2005, with indoor installations of WiMax antennas following in the second half. Devices that have WiMax chips using what will be the portable 802.16e standard may be available at early as 2006.

802.16e chips will enable devices to directly connect to WiMax antennas.

Intel also announced that it is working with telecommunications equipment companies, including Airspan Networks, Alvarion, Aperto Networks and Redline Communications, on WiMax equipment that uses Intel silicon. Telecom carriers working with Intel include BT in the United Kingdom, Iberbanda in Spain, PCCW in Hong Kong and Reliance Infocomm in India.

Intel has promoted wireless networking and Wi-Fi through its $300 million marketing campaign for its Centrino bundle of chips, which includes the company's Pentium M processor, chipset and Wi-Fi components. But it won't be doing the same for WiMax, which it views as a complement to Wi-Fi. WiMax is an infrastructure technology, meaning that it enables carriers and their equipment partners to distribute broadband access.

"For the next two years, WiMax is an infrastructure play," Maloney said.