Intel Endorses Wi-Max With New Line Of Chips For Standard

The Santa-Clara, Calif.-based chip giant, which used its marketing might to help put Wi-Fi on the map, was one of the drivers behind Wi-Max, the popular name for the IEEE's 802.16 standard. Intel's late-April unveiling is expected to further increase the technology's visibility in the industry. "We think this is the way to get to the next billion broadband users," said Ron Peck, director of marketing for Wi-Max at Intel.

About 11 equipment manufacturers, including Airspan Networks, Huawei Technologies, Proxim and Siemens Mobile, will be releasing products based on Intel's Pro/Wireless 5116 chips. In addition, carriers such as AT&T, Qwest Communications International, SpeakEasy and Towerstream in the United States and a number of others overseas currently are testing products.

Actual services could be rolled out in the United States by the end of the third quarter, Peck said. "We have 15 carriers announcing trial, and I can tell you unabashedly, this is the tip of the iceberg of companies that want to try it," he said.

Wi-Max is a point-to-multipoint networking technology that can send and receive data at long distances. For this reason, it is considered an optimal technology for last-mile access in areas where wired connections are too expensive or not feasible.

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"Wi-Max holds a lot of promise," said Paul Giobbi, president of Zumasys, an integrator in Lake Forrest, Calif. "It will be here soon in the traditional form, but the mobile version is still a few years away," he said.

Unlike current 3G wireless WAN services from carriers, which Zumasys has been offering clients as a way to tap into e-mail and corporate data, Wi-Max has the marketing support of a technology-savvy company backing it, Giobbi said. "Intel is a very channel-friendly company and they have a consistent message around mobility."

Giobbi has been actively lobbying carriers to step up their data-mobility message and channel-support efforts.

Unlike Wi-Fi's relatively limited coverage area, one Wi-Max access point can cover about 30 miles. The technology supports mesh networking, so transmissions can travel much farther distances by "hopping" across a number of access points in a metropolitan area. Speeds can go up to 70 Mbps, but industry experts expect most service providers to offer speeds between 1 Mbps to 10 Mbps.

The idea of providing last-mile service through wireless is not new, and a number of companies, including Proxim, still offer a range of proprietary equipment. But with 802.16, products will be based on a unified standard, which means vendors' products should be interoperable and pricing should be more attractive to service providers.

Though early rollouts are expected to focus on partial T1-type service to small businesses, broadband access to home and SOHO users, and Wi-Fi backhaul, Intel expects service providers will roll out additional services, such as VoIP and video, in the future, Peck said. Intel believes these services will come from established carriers as well as small incumbents, potentially offering new sources for solution providers.

The technology has its challenges, however. In the United States, the prominent phone companies have already started an aggressive broadband buildout. They have a headstart in capturing small business, SOHO and consumers who are still without services.

Overseas, particularly in developing nations, the technology has a greater potential to bring Internet services at much lower cost for providers. Wi-Max access points are expected to cost between $250 and $550. Like all technology, those prices should drop over time, and Intel estimates the products will cost in the neighborhood of $50 by 2008.

Most experts believe Wi-Max's real potential will come with the forthcoming 802.16e standard, which is expected to show up in the United States in late 2006. The 802.16e standard promises fast wireless speeds in broader coverage areas than currently available with Wi-Fi. Intel said the standard could be ratified as early as the end of the year, but it probably won't show up in notebooks until 2007.

Many wireless carriers are evaluating the technology carefully as an option to supplement their third-generation wireless WAN services.