WiMAX promises breakthrough in broadband access

A new wireless networking technology, called WiMAX, is poised to reshape the way that service providers offer broadband Internet access in the U.S. and other countries, holding out the promise that high-speed network services may take off in these markets, according to a senior Intel Corp. executive.

WiMAX, also known as 802.16a, is a wireless networking standard that offers greater range and bandwidth than the Wi-Fi family of standards, which includes 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. While Wi-Fi is intended to provide coverage over relatively small areas, such as in offices or hotspots, WiMAX can transfer around 70M bps (bits per second) over a distance of 30 miles (48 kilometers) to thousands of users from a single base station.

By comparison, the most commonly used flavor of Wi-Fi, 802.11b, can transfer data at speeds up to 11M bps over ranges up to 1,000 feet in open areas.

The greater range and higher bandwidth of WiMAX gives service providers the ability to offer broadband Internet access directly to homes without having to worry about the problems that can arise when laying down a physical connection over the so-called "last mile," which connects homes with service providers' main networks, according to Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group.

"WiMAX is a very effective replacement for the last mile for broadband," Chandrasekher said in an interview Monday.

Besides making it easier to offer broadband services, WiMAX can help service providers cut the costs associated with installing broadband Internet connections.

"For a service provider to provide broadband, it costs them about US$400 in just getting the truck out there, doing the installation," Chandrasekher said.

On average, installing a single broadband connections requires about 20 minutes, Chandrasekher said. However, in a worst-case scenario that time can stretch to as long as two hours, increasing the installation costs for the service provider and wiping out its profits in the process, he said.

"WiMAX would eliminate that because with WiMAX you'd be able to broadcast the broadband capabilities and in the home environment you could have an access point," Chandrasekher said.

WiMAX-based products are not currently available. The standard was finalized in January of this year and commercial products aren't expected until sometime in 2005, according to information released by Intel on Monday at the Intel Developer Forum in Taipei.

For its part, Intel wants to be one of the first companies to get WiMAX-based products into the market. The company has announced plans to start production of chips that can be used in WiMAX-based equipment during the second half of next year. With service provider trials set to begin next year, Intel expects WiMAX products to be commercially available in 2005.

WiMAX could be the key to breaking through the last-mile barriers which have slowed broadband adoption in the U.S., especially in rural areas where the cost of deploying broadband connections has not been economical, Chandrasekher said. The technology could also open up availability to broadband Internet access in developing countries, like China and India, he said.

WiMAX will also promote greater competition in countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, where broadband penetration rates are already very high, Chandrasekher said.

"You may see service providers (use WiMAX to) compete for business. If somebody already has a wire into your house and somebody else is not going to get another wire into your house, they may choose to offer WiMAX as a means of getting into that business," he said.

The higher speed and longer range of WiMAX won't immediately be available in mobile computers or handsets, Chandrasekher said.

WiMAX will first be used to overcome the problems, such as local laws and regulations, that are associated with crossing the last mile. Chandrasekher envisages WiMAX being used to wirelessly connect homes to broadband networks through access points that incorporate Wi-Fi, offering wireless access within the home.

However, in the future, users will be able to connect to WiMAX networks directly from their laptops or cellular handsets, Chandrasekher said.

"But that's still a ways away, the first priority is the last mile problem," he said.

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