Intel and Proxim get serious about WiMax

Intel and Proxim have signed to build next-generation WiMax wireless broadband products together. Unlike an earlier agreement between Intel and Alcatel, however, Proxim will supply some of the core technology itself to go with Intel's WiMax chipsets.

Proxim will manufacture both base stations and subscriber access points, and collaborate with Intel on products using the still-unfinished mobile version of WiMax, 802.16e.

The first products will use the 802.16a revision d specification for fixed access, Proxim said, including base stations and receivers, known as customer premise equipment (CPE). The base station, the Proxim Tsunami MP.16, will be marketed to both telecoms providers and enterprises, allowing companies to roll out wide-area network access to their own workers. The equipment will use both licensed and unlicensed spectrum - telcos prefer licensed spectrum, as it guarantees less competition, while unlicensed spectrum can be installed by anyone.

A major part of the deal, according to Intel, will be collaboration on reference designs for base station and CPE equipment. Intel is hoping that WiMax will create a large market for its own commodity wireless chips, as the Wi-Fi standard has already done.

"Proxim strongly believes in both the technological and market potential of WiMax and particularly portable implementations of WiMax," said its COO Kevin Duffy. Proxim investors agreed, pushing the company's shares up more than 25 percent in heavy trading on Thursday morning.

The companies also plan to continue working together on 802.16e mobile equipment in the future. Proxim said it would deliver certified mobile equipment late next year. This may not sound very far off, but the technology will take time to mature, according to analysts -- Gartner Inc. doesn't expect mobile WiMax to be in significant use until after 2009.

WiMax promises a theoretical maximum throughput of 70Mbit/s over 50 kilometers. The high throughput means providers could use it to offer services such as video and voice as well as broadband. The mobile version of the standard, which Intel ultimately wants to build into laptops alongside Wi-Fi, could be an important addition to European wireless connectivity.

"This could be the missing piece between the specific small areas of coverage provided by hotspots, and the lower-bandwidth but more ubiquitous cellular technologies (such as 3G)," said analyst Richard Webb of Infonetics Research Inc. However, he cautioned: "WiMax is going to get talked about a lot before it really develops and the true applications become clear."

Intel has said little so far about the chipsets, but executives said Proxim would also be contributing technology at the software level that Intel had decided not to take the time to develop on its own. Earlier this year Intel teamed up with Alcatel and Siemens on WiMax gear, due to begin the certification process later this year.

Momentum is building for WiMax, but not necessarily for the mobile specification, which is sexier, but so far off it is hardly worth considering, according to industry analysts. Several large telecommunications providers, including BT Group and France Telecom, recently joined the WiMax forum, and both are planning to use WiMax to supplement existing business-oriented Internet access technologies such as ADSL and SDSL.

On the other hand, service providers are rolling out wireless broadband at a rapid rate using existing proprietary technologies, a phenomenon which is likely to slow the adoption of standardized equipment, according to market researchers. A number of startups in the U.S. are offering T1-like services using proprietary wireless equipment; a recent addition to their ranks is the U.K.'s Libera PLC, which is planning to offer 36Mbit/s of fixed wireless broadband connectivity to 75 percent of small and medium businesses, starting with London.

802.16 was devised by the IEEE as a way of standardizing an array of wireless broadband technologies already in use. Interoperability and common standards are being created through the WiMax Forum, created by Intel, Nokia, Fujitsu, Proxim among others last year.

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