Wireless Broadband Rallies On Reach Of WiMax

The once-ailing broadband wireless industry has become a new front in the drive toward ubiquitous broadband access, complete with VoIP and other data services, through low-cost last-mile pipes for both

June 7, 2004

4 Min Read
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WASHINGTON — The once-ailing broadband wireless industry has become a new front in the drive toward ubiquitous broadband access, complete with voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) and other data services, through low-cost last-mile pipes for both homes and businesses.

This technology has been energized by WiMax, which is now seen as a high-speed data overlay for metropolitan areas, as well as the original target of rural deployments and developing countries. In metro applications, it will lie between 3G cellular and Wi-Fi hotspots while also filling the gaps in DSL and cable coverage in urban and suburban areas, said experts at the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) International conference here last week.

"We want to enable communications devices on the go, and we believe this can only come about through standards that will in turn get costs down," said Scott Richardson, general manager of the Broadband Wireless Division at Intel Corp., one of the companies driving WiMax. Richardson reaffirmed Intel's plan to put WiMax in laptops by 2006.

The cost of customer-premises equipment "has been the Achilles' heel of broadband wireless," said Jeff Thompson, president and COO of TowerStream, a broadband wireless operator based in Middletown, R.I. "It has to come down to $200 to $300 " from $700 [today]. The combination of Wi-Fi and WiMax will be great."

To hit a cost of $200, conference chairman and WiMax Forum president Ron Resnick, the director of marketing for Intel's Broadband Wireless Division, promised standards-based silicon before year's end. Interoperability tests will follow in January and certified equipment by mid-2005, he said. "That will be for fixed equipment, with in-building equipment by the second half of 2005." Zvi Slonimsky, president of equipment vendor Alvarion, predicted the WiMax market will hit $2.5 billion in 2008.Despite the optimism, industry leaders also pointed to obstacles ranging from high-level regulatory issues to infighting among equipment vendors over definitions of "WiMax ready" and questions of the true market potential of VoIP and its role as a driver of broadband wireless.

While cautioning against the dangers of too much "hype," Intel's Richardson still sees WiMax as an answer to rural last-mile broadband access and as a filler where cable and digital subscriber lines don't exist. "But it's also a high-speed data overlay for metro regions," where it can potentially complement and offload 3G networks, he said. "Also, Wi-Fi can be used indoors, and then the user can switch to WiMax outside the building."

Profile questions Issues of the profiles to be used are being worked out, said Mo Shakouri, vice president of the WiMax Forum and assistant vice president of business development at Alvarion. The latest profile definition calls for both frequency-division and time-division duplex operation in the 3.5-GHz band, with channel widths of 3.5 MHz (FDD) and 3.5 and 7 MHz (TDD). For the 5.8-GHz band, the profile calls for 10-MHz bands with TDD operation.

For the wider broadband wireless market, regulators used panels and open discussions here to share their views on the role of VoIP as the market's potential driver. "Is VoIP the killer app for broadband [in general]?" asked Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "If so, then it will also be a driver for wireless broadband." VoIP, he said, "has incredible abilities; it can break everything open " costs, services, conferencing, call forwarding " so we want to get it out there."

But Peter Pitsch, chairman of the Voice on the Net Coalition, said VoIP still faces problems, ranging from basic economics to social issues such as the privacy implications of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (Calea) over IP networks and E911 compliance. Pitsch argued that access fees should be set at the federal, not state, level. "The commission [FCC] should rely on private industry to solve Calea and E911 " with the government only weighing in if industry fails," he said.Michael Gallagher, assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, pointed to the potential of wireless broadband to also deliver such IP services as video and data. Still, he said, "in Washington we're focused on voice right now," quoting figures from news reports that put VoIP as the next $300 billion industry.

For wireless to succeed, the FCC calls flexibility in spectrum management key. "It's a finite radio resource," said Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who said recent FCC initiatives include allowing ultrawideband transmissions across incumbent bands, opening more spectrum in the 5-GHz band, support for cognitive radio and the potential sharing of licensed bands.

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