March 24, 2005
Intel Deploys Pre-Standard WiMAX
By Mark Hachman
LONDON -- WiMAX backers continue to seed early versions of the technology among prospective customers, hoping that it will spark demand when services roll out in early 2006.
In the latest example, Intel has provided the U.K.'s National Museum of Science and Industry an early WiMAX deployment for its reserve warehouses, which sit on an abandoned airfield near Intel's offices in Swindon, Wiltshire.
A WiMAX antenna sits atop the 7 hangars currently in use by the museum, connected wirelessly to the base station housed in Intel's Swindon offices. Inside each of the hangars, six Wi-Fi access points allow museum employees to roam between the hundreds of exhibits in storage, entering data on a Tablet PC.
Although hundreds of companies are members of the WiMAX Forum, including Intel, Alvarion Ltd., Atheros, France Telecom, Fujitsu, LG Electronics, Samsung, Sanyo and others, WiMAX isn't a done deal. A number of companies including Broadcom, Cisco Systems, and large national telecom carriers are shying away from WiMAX in favor of what they feel are more developed wireless standards, such as wideband CDMA and HSDPA. Cisco, meanwhile, has staked out a more independent position, participating in the WiMAX Forum but indicating in a carefully nuanced statement that the company has no plans to build WiMAX base stations or any other base stations using WAN technology, favoring Wi-Fi instead.
Intel sees the technology as a wireless replacement for DSL or cable, offering 70-Mbits per second of a distance of 30 kilometers, with bandwidth dropping off the farther out the signal has to travel. Although Intel often shows the technology with a single antenna serving an entire metropolitan area, the reality is that traffic restrictions will probably limit a single antenna to a village housing a few thousand people, equipment makers have said.
Still, the technology is ideal for rural poor areas such as Africa, said Gordon Graylish, director of marketing for the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions. "The reality is that if you put copper wiring in the ground in certain places in Africa, it's going to disappear," he said.
Intel executives said the WiMAX timetable remains largely unchanged. The "fixed" version of WiMAX, also known as 802.16d, is on track to roll out later this year, Graylish said. Intel's "Rosedale" WiMAX chipset is being provided to equipment makers like Alvarion. Beginning in 2007, Intel will integrate the chipset into its Centrino mobile platform, and add it into handsets in 2007 or 2008.
The problem is that Intel's WiMAX timetable has actually slipped. In 2003, for example, Intel executives claimed that the first WiMAX systems and products would ship at the end of 2004. A year later, Intel executives said that the WiMAX technology would be added to Centrino chipsets in 2006, with WiMAX handsets due a year later. Both of the mobile technologies will be predicated on 802.16e, the mobile variant of WiMAX, which should be ratified next year.
Intel's WiMAX components will be designed so that they fit within the current Centrino power budget, Graylish said in an interview.
Although discussions of when a technology is scheduled to be rolled out can be vague – chipsets have to be sampled, then shipped to customers, and then made into products – one key timetable will be when customers begin delivering products certified for interoperability by the WiMAX Forum, said Ian Keene, an analyst with Gartner in London.
"The opportunity for WiMAX is sooner, rather than later," Keene said. "We need to see WiMAX certified products by the end of the year."
Fewer than 1 million people will use WiMAX this year, Keene said, and WiMAX equipment sales are expected to be about $250 million. By 2009, the growth of mobile WiMAX will boost the user base to 15 million people and equipment sales to about $1.5 billion, Keene and Gartner project.
Other analysts have claimed that WiMAX and cellular technologies are on a collision course, with larger wireless providers choosing to invest in extensions of their established wireless technologies. Keene said he believed that reluctance to adapt would hurt cellular carriers, although he agreed that WiMAX solutions providers will need to demonstrate lower customer premise equipment (CPE) costs, a term used for the price of a customer's modem or access equipment.
"I don't buy the hype in HSDPA," Keene said. "They [the carriers] will have problems investing in another network when they're struggling to make money with this one," he said, referring to the current 3G infrastructure. However, he said he's optimistic that the South Korean "WiBro" WiMAX alternative standard can be integrated into the main WiMAX spec.
Cost, however, will be key issue. Keene said he expects the CPE cost for the current "fixed" version" of WiMAX to be between $500 to $600, dropping to $200 or so by 2007. However, one industry representative said that Keene's CPE estimates are already too high.
"It is already $400 or lower," said Udi Shaked, director of strategic marketing for Alvarion. "Once the certification process begins this year in June or July, it should drop to $350 or even $300."
In the U.K., wireless is being sought as an alternative to the near-monopoly held by British Telecom over the last-mile copper infrastructure, which serves as the basis for ADSL services. Although the BT lines have been deregulated, broadband is perhaps a year or two behind the U.S., where speeds of 4-6 Mbits per second on cable lines are becoming increasingly common.
WiMAX also is an opportunity to cheaply serve rural villages, leading Keene to believe that WiMAX will initially roll out in "pockets" of rural townships. Libera, a U.K. WISP, already has a pre-standard WiMAX trial running in Bristol, with plans to serve 50 U.K. cities by the end of 2005.
Agencies like the U.K.'s NMSI are just happy to be able to do their jobs, even with pre-standard products. Because the NMSI hangars are spread over Wiltshire's rolling countryside, up until last week data entry required driving a few hundred meters with a laptop to a neighboring hangar, getting out, entering the hangar, finding the object, writing down details or entering it in a laptop, and driving back to the office to enter the data into the museum's database, said Sally Pettipher, a museum employee.
Because of the distances between the hangars and the massive amount s of metal contained in the cars, appliances, and computers stored in the metal hangars, WiMAX was virtually the only solution. A wired approach was rejected because of budget constraints, said Marta Leskard, the collections care manager for the facility.
The museum is also seriously considering the use if RFID tags to help staffers quickly find objects, which must be categorized and located to ship to the main museum in South Kensington in London, Leskard said.