WiMax? Why not?

Wireless broadband gear gets its second wind in Chicago at Supercomm 2005.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
CHICAGO--A superfast wireless technology known as WiMax is getting its second wind here in the Windy City.

Leading the charge are U.S. telephone operators BellSouth and AT&T, which both said here at the Supercomm 2005 trade show that they are looking at WiMax. The companies hope the technology can solve problems with expanding into areas where terrain or density make traditional wire-line telephony impractical for delivering service over the last mile between homes and nationwide phone networks.

It's clear here in Chicago that WiMax--once eschewed as an undeveloped plaything for geeks, and beset by interoperability testing problems--has once again caught the attention of major carriers and equipment makers.

"Our contention is that 2005 is truly the year in which WiMax technology will emerge in multiple markets worldwide, as the leading companies in the industry move forward with significant product development, compliance testing and initial field deployments," said Keith Horn, senior vice president of Fujitsu Microelectronics America, one of several major vendors to announce WiMax products or relationships here.

WiMax, another name for the 802.16 standard for wireless broadband, has a range of up to 30 miles and can deliver broadband at a theoretical maximum of 75 megabits per second, which is more than 20 times the speed of the fastest wired broadband available commercially. WiMax serves as a partial successor to the wildly popular Wi-Fi protocol, which works over far shorter distances--measured in feet rather than miles.

But for all its promise, WiMax was been plagued by the sort of problems any fledgling technology bumps up against, ranging from working out kinks in the technology to persuading the biggest in the industry that it's for real.

In January, the technology suffered the indignity of having its first-ever equipment interoperability tests pushed back for six months, until June.

But along came Intel, credited by many with breathing new life into WiMax. In April, the chip giant began shipping its PRO-Wireless 5116 chipset for mobile WiMax, which will likely be built into commercially available PCs by 2007.

That has helped light a new fire under WiMax technology, and it has renewed talk about how valuable it will be to operators--how it's much cheaper than laying cables as a way to extend a network's reach.

BellSouth plans to blanket portions of Georgia, including college communities, with WiMax services, while AT&T will soon announce two more cities where it's trialing the service and testing a new voice-over-WiMax feature, representatives for the operators said.

"We're looking to move into several more major urban areas," said AT&T Vice President Eric Shepcaro. "Our goal is a full-scale rollout in these areas."

While not as far along as AT&T or BellSouth, U.S. operator Sprint is also working on a WiMax service. And most Korean operators recently joined the board of the WiMax Forum, a WiMax trade association, a sign of their commitment to the technology.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited introduction of consumer WiMax modems and other products is finally beginning to happen. Some of the new WiMax gear uses a system-on-a-chip design by Fujitsu. That includes gear from equipment maker Aperto, a Milpitas, Calif.-based company that on Tuesday revealed that its own WiMax lineup will be at the heart of WiMax equipment trials by telephone operators in Spain, the Netherlands and the United States.

Though much of the WiMax gear is rooted to a single location for now, mobile services appear just around the corner, especially since heavyweight Nortel Networks says it's developing mobile WiMax gear with partner LG.

But WiMax products still suffer from sticker shock. Aperto's PacketMax products, rolling out at the end of the year, will cost a consumer between $400 and $600 just for the modem. Though pricey for most consumers, WiMax modems used to cost about $2,000, putting them even further out of reach of the mainstream.

Prices are expected to slip even further because a growing number of different chipmakers, led by Fujitsu and Intel, are introducing WiMax chips. That means WiMax equipment makers no longer have to develop their own chips, as Aperto said, which saves on research costs that drive up prices.

"Remember when Wi-Fi first came out?" Aperto Vice President Alan Menezes said. "The same things are happening here. Wi-Fi cards used to cost $1,000. Now they're $40."