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BT strikes up the broadband with WiMax

The telecom giant is testing emerging technology WiMax in four rural parts of the United Kingdom. Could it be a prelude to a full-scale launch?

Telecom giant BT is testing an emerging wide-area wireless broadband technology known as WiMax in four rural parts of the United Kingdom in what could be a prelude to a full-scale launch of the technology in Britain.

As part of the trial service, customers receive broadband fixed access by attaching a receiver to their houses. However, BT is also exploring more advanced versions of WiMax to support high-speed mobile broadband, the company said.

"If the potential benefits of WiMax, such as voice services and portability, are realized, then there might be a case for rolling out a WiMax service more widely," Ian Robinson, head of emerging products at BT Retail, said Thursday.

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BT's trials are taking place in Ballingry in Fife, Scotland, Pwllheli in Wales, Porthleven in Cornwall and Campsie in Northern Ireland.

Robinson, who was speaking at the IIR ISP Forum in London, said that BT hopes to launch its radio-broadband service in more rural areas--although this will need subsidies from local government agencies.

But in the long-term, the company is eyeing the possibility of offering WiMax services to more than just rural broadband have-nots.

The broadband fixed access uses a version of WiMax known as 802.16d, but a more advanced version is under development called 802.16e. It supports mobility and should allow laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to connect to a WiMax antenna from a distance, like a mobile phone talking to the nearest base station.

Intel is giving plenty of support to WiMax, in the same way that it aggressively backed Wi-Fi. The chipmaker this week said that it expects to produce 802.16 chips later this year and that laptops including the technology could go on sale in 2006.

"We will have silicon on it certainly this year. You'll see 802.16 in notebooks--well, it's difficult to say--I think 2006. That's the time frame I'm comfortable with," said Anand Chandrasekher, vice president of Intel's mobile platforms group.

Once consumers find themselves with a WiMax-enabled device, they'll be looking for a network to which to connect. "If all these laptops are going to be supporting WiMax, then the question for BT is, 'Who is going to be handling the network side?'" Robinson said.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.