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Gear makers team for wireless broadband

A consortium of component and equipment makers reveals plans to promote the 802.16a wireless broadband standard in hopes of riding the success of Wi-Fi networking.

Gear makers have joined a nonprofit group looking to promote wireless access to high-speed broadband connections.

Component and equipment makers including Intel, Nokia and Fujitsu Microelectronics America, announced Tuesday that they will be working with WiMax to help promote and certify compatibility and interoperability of equipment for wirelessly accessing high-speed broadband connections.

WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, promotes the 802.16a standard for wide-area broadband access, and the gear makers want to provide components to tap into those 802.16a networks. The 802.16a networks have a range of up to about 30 miles with data transfer speeds of up to 70mbps.

A myriad of industries--such as chipmakers--will likely pick up on 802.16a technology. However, WiMax's initial push is among high-speed networking companies that want to expand into areas such as rural districts or sparsely populated areas where it's not economically feasible to build DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable networks. The high costs of such construction have kept DSL and cable providers out of many rural areas, according to industry trade group DSL Forum.

Building an 802.16a network is up to half as expensive as installing a T1 line for operators, said WiMax President Margaret LaBrecque, who is also a spokeswoman for Intel's broadband wireless initiatives group. By using 802.16a gear to build a wireless network, operators would be able to make broadband access available to customers sooner, because it would not entail major construction.

"This is another step towards mass-produced wireless data," said Sean Maloney, general manager of Intel's communication group. "This would be an alternative to DSL."

Politicians including Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and George Allen, R-Va., have been advocating wireless broadband as a third means--along with cable and DSL--of delivering high-speed connectivity to the masses. Earlier this year, the senators proposed the Jumpstart Broadband Act, which would allocate additional radio spectrum for unlicensed use by wireless broadband devices.

WiMax is also initially looking to draft wireless "hot-spot" operators--such as Cometa Networks, T-Mobile and Wayport--to support 802.16a technology. (Hot spots provide wireless Web access using technology linked to another family of standards known as Wi-Fi, or 802.11a and 802.11b.) These hot spot companies could use the 802.16a equipment, which has a range of up to about 30 miles and a data transfer capacity of up to 70MBps, to replace the expensive wired Web connections they use to provide access to Wi-Fi networks, she said.

Those wireless users who have seen prices of 802.11b access cards drop to sub-$50 levels might be in for some sticker shock, as the 802.16a modems that a home or hot spot would need cost about $1,000 each. However, WiMax members envision that price dropping to about $300.

Base stations, which a wireless Web provider would need to offer an 802.16a service, cost about $10,000.

WiMax is promoting a technology based on an idea that debuted about five years ago. The initial reaction was very negative, however, from most of the commercial concerns that tried it. Carriers, including Sprint, were willing to give the equipment a try, but ultimately abandoned their efforts, saying the technology just wasn't ready yet for broad installation and use.

The group's members include Airspan Networks, Aperto Networks, Ensemble Communications, Fujitsu Microelectronics America, Intel, Nokia, OFDM Forum, Proxim and Wi-LAN. The addition of gear makers to WiMax will help the group take up a similar role to that played by the Wi-Fi Alliance in the wireless networking market.