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802.16a: Sedan or Mack Truck?

When it comes to Intel's wireless equipment, there are reasons to be skeptical.

Let's give Intel credit. It hasn't always made the best microprocessors, but it's done well pushing the price/performance curve and convincing customers that there's value in the Intel brand. The "Intel Inside" marketing campaign is ubiquitous, yet consumers and businesses haven't shown the kind of hostility they feel for other near monopolies.

When it comes to Intel's wireless equipment, however, there are reasons to be skeptical. The company's latest foray into wireless comes through a partnership announced last month with Alvarion. Intel will develop silicon in support of the emerging IEEE 802.16a metropolitan-area network standard, also known as WiMax, a trade name cleverly adapted from Wi-Fi. But comparing the prospects for Wi-Fi with those of 802.16a is like comparing sport sedans with 10-ton trucks. The former is mass market; the latter is niche.

Within two years, nearly every portable computing device will include embedded Wi-Fi capabilities. That's a mass market with lots of zeros. However, 802.16a is best viewed as an alternative to cable modems and DSL. Is there demand for cable/DSL alternatives? Probably. Is that demand widespread? Probably not. Unfortunately, the broader market doesn't yet understand the distinctions between wireless LAN and wireless MAN.

I'm not suggesting 802.16a has no future. As a second-generation multipoint fixed wireless technology, it's likely to enjoy some success in the United n the licensed 2.5-GHz MMDS bands and internationally in the 3.5-GHz band. As IEEE standardizes on a metropolitan wireless MAC interface and WiMax pushes the OFDM physical-layer interface, it's predictable that the cost of base-station equipment and subscriber modems will come down.

But lower-cost addresses are only part of the problem with multipoint wireless. Considering that Sprint and MCI (formerly WorldCom) together own more than 60 percent of the MMDS spectrum in the United States, does anyone really expect them to jump into the wireless access market with both feet? The best prospects may be in suburban, rural and international markets where DSL and cable aren't readily available.

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