Chip maker unconvinced WiMax will replace DSL

Despite all of the hype surrounding WiMax, chip maker Texas Instruments remains unconvinced the technology will revolutionize the way that broadband Internet services are delivered to homes and offices, according to a company executive.

"I'm not totally convinced that from the standpoint of providing broadband to the home that WiMax is going to be very effective," said Joseph Crupi, vice president of TI's Broadband Communications Group, during an interview last week in Shanghai.

WiMax, also known as 802.16, is a set of emerging wireless networking technologies that are being developed to cover large areas up to a range of 48 kilometers and provide data-transfer speeds up to 70M bps (bits per second). The first version of the technology, 802.16a, is expected to be used for fixed-wireless connections and future versions are planned to offer mobile access, opening up the possibility of putting the technology in notebook computers and cell phones.

The fixed-wireless version of WiMax has been aggressively pushed by Intel and others as an alternative to DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable for broadband Internet access.

But Crupi is skeptical of these plans, citing as an example the Broadband Wireless Internet Forum (BWIF), an industry group that several years ago advocated the adoption of a different fixed-wireless technology for broadband Internet access. While BWIF made many of the same promises now being made about WiMax, the BWIF technology was never deployed commercially and the broadband Internet access market has since come to be dominated by DSL and cable.

Crupi's doubts about the potential of the fixed-wireless version of WiMax as an alternative to DSL have not been eased by operators, who have so far not committed to deploying WiMax on a scale that would justify the investments needed for TI to offer products based on the technology. "A million-unit trial to us is not a lot of money, so we're looking for someone to really step up," Crupi said.

For example, in China, one of the world's fastest growing markets for broadband Internet services, operators are not talking much about WiMax, he said.

China Telecommunications (China Telecom), the country's largest broadband Internet provider, will primarily rely on DSL to provide broadband access to its customers, said Tian Hong, deputy general manager of China Telecom's Network Planning Division, speaking at a seminar in Shanghai last week. While Tian said China Telecom plans to try out FTTH (Fiber To The Home) services in the future, she made no mention of WiMax during her presentation.

Nevertheless, Intel has pushed WiMax as an alternative to broadband over DSL in China. In June, the company announced an agreement to try WiMax-based Internet services in two Chinese cities, Dalian and Chengdu, but did not release specifics of the agreement, including when the trials are expected to commence, how many users would be involved, or which operators would participate.

The announcement was made based on agreements signed with local authorities in these cities and does not involve operators or officials at the national level, said Sean Maloney [CQ], the executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Communications Group, speaking in Busan, South Korea, earlier this month.

Maloney had no further information on the status of the trials.

While TI's Crupi sees little potential in WiMax as a way of providing broadband Internet access to homes, he sees promise in the mobile version of the technology, which will let users log on to Internet services provided by a mobile operator from any location within a large area, such as a city, using a notebook, phone or PDA (personal digital assistant).

"I think the key issue there is for WiMax to rationalize itself with cellular standards somehow, and I think if that works out it will be fairly big," Crupi said.

Despite Intel's enthusiasm for WiMax as a means of providing broadband Internet access to homes and offices, Crupi thinks the company is more focused on the mobile version of WiMax. "I don't underestimate Intel and what they can do with their marketing power, but I think their play will be more on the portability side," he said.

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