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WiMax backers: Our future is bright

Executives from Samsung and Alcatel-Lucent say they're optimistic about prospects for the standard taking off this year, even as major U.S. carriers go a different road.

WASHINGTON--WiMax's most prominent supporters are predicting that, despite not exactly stunning support of the wireless technology so far, it will take off this year.

Speaking at a conference here hosted by the Wireless Communications Association International, Michael Seymour, vice president of Alcatel-Lucent's North American broadband wireless unit, said WiMax has experienced "tremendous growth" in recent years, even in "emerging markets" like the Dominican Republic, and predicted improvements in the technology would only continue.

"WiMax is working, it's ready, it's delivering today," Seymour said, noting that about 110 people at his company's campus are required to use the technology for work every day.

Samsung has said it plans to release a WiMax-enabled version of its Q1 Ultra handheld PC (non-WiMax version shown here) in the United States later this year. Samsung

Rick Svensson, director of sales for Samsung's WiMax unit, said his company is "very anxious" to show off the technology in 2008. It plans to release a WiMax-enabled version of its Q1 ultramobile PC later this year and to offer support for Sprint Nextel's planned launch of its Xohm WiMax network sometime in 2008.

WiMax, of course, refers to a fourth-generation wireless technology that, unlike Wi-Fi, transmits signals that can travel miles, making it more similar to cellular-phone technology--and potentially useful for applications like surfing the Web in a moving vehicle.

At the moment, Sprint Nextel is the only major U.S. wireless carrier that has committed to using the technology, picking Samsung, Motorola, and Intel as partners. It has ended a partnership with Clearwire, which runs its own network--at least for now--and has trial networks up and running in the Baltimore/Washington region and Boston so far. Comcast and Time Warner are also reportedly considering offering help in bankrolling a new Sprint and Clearwire venture.

The other dominant providers, such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and numerous major equipment makers have endorsed an alternative approach known as Long-Term Evolution, or LTE. But it's viewed as being two or three years behind WiMax.

Svensson, for his part, said WiMax backers are still optimistic about their prospects. "With the momentum we're seeing around WiMax, we're going to blow them out of the water," he said.

Others were more cautious about the future of the technology.

"We have a situation today where not a single carrier can implement a nationwide WiMax network today by themselves; they'll either need to partner with someone else or look for additional funding," said Adlane Fellah, co-founder of a Montreal-based analyst firm called Maravedis Research. "From a spectrum footprint perspective, not every carrier has spectrum everywhere, although Sprint has the largest footprint."

To be sure, WiMax deployments are still "modest," as are revenues for service and subscriber numbers, Fellah said.

According to his firm's analysis, there were 256 WiMax operators in 91 countries and about 1.7 million subscribers as of the fourth quarter of 2007. Of those subscribers, about two-thirds of them are residential customers and a third are business customers.

Although most of the WiMax offerings are located in Europe and Asia, the U.S. company Clearwire counts the largest number of subscribers, numbering about 394,000 as of the fourth quarter of 2007, Fellah said. Korea Telecom and Unwired Australia had the next biggest numbers, with about 100,000 and 76,000 subscribers respectively.

Alcatel-Lucent, for its part, is participating in more than 70 trials and deployments of WiMax technology around the world, from Brazil to Malaysia to the Netherlands, Seymour said. During tests in Chile in February, he said his company was able to maintain a "stable and correct" 2.3 megabits per second (Mbps) throughput speeds from as far as 43.5 kilometers away from an outdoor base station.

In ideal conditions, without "a whole lot of users on the network," WiMax users can expect download speeds of 10 to 11 megabits per second, said Samsung's Svensson. As a general rule, users can expect to get somewhere in the range of 3 to 4Mbps download speeds and 1 to 2Mbps upload speeds, he added.

Perhaps the biggest remaining problem for WiMax operators will be managing heavy traffic loads, Seymour said. "Everybody can make it work when there's three guys on (the network)," he said, "but when you're reaching your rate overload, you've got to make sure...the system can properly handle traffic."