Wireless solutions provider Alvarion used the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) conference in Washington DC to roll out equipment that it said can be easily upgraded to support WiMax wireless broadband.
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Alvarion already makes its own proprietary wireless broadband infrastructure, which it sells to carriers that want to provide high-speed Internet access over long distances. The BreezeMax product line introduced yesterday, based on an Alvarion chip, includes wireless base stations that later will be able to serve WiMax CPE (customer premises equipment).
All that carriers will need to support the new CPE is a firmware upgrade, claimed Patrick Leary, assistant vice president of marketing at Alvarion.
Suppliers are counting on high-volume production of WiMax silicon to drive down the price of customer gear and make wireless broadband a profitable carrier service. WiMax is designed to deliver data speeds comparable to cable modem and DSL services over a distance of as much as 30 miles. The WiMax Forum industry group expects to begin certifying WiMax products by the end of this year.
The group is working toward specifications for three pieces of radio spectrum, around 2.5GHz, 3.5GHz and 5GHz. Alvarion's platform introduced yesterday, the BreezeMax 3500, will use the 3.5GHz band.
Once an Intel chip set that supports WiMax in the 3.5GHz band is commercially available it will be integrated into new, standardised versions of Alvarion's CPE and its base stations. Leary expected the chip set to ship around the middle of next year, adding that standardised, high-volume silicon should drive down costs significantly.
The BreezeMax 3500 line will include "macro" base stations for dense urban areas and "micro" base stations for rural deployments, along with three kinds of CPE. One CPE device is for IP data only, one supports both data and VoIP, and one has an integrated 802.11g wireless Lan access point for wireless hotspots or small businesses.
For the CPE, Alvarion will charge carriers between $200 and $500 depending on volume, capacity and configuration. The micro base stations will range from $10,000 to $15,000 and the macro versions from $50,000 to $60,000.
Though much attention has been focused on the licensed 2.5GHz and unlicensed 5GHz bands, Alvarion is targeting 3.5GHz range, which has already been licensed for wireless carrier services in many countries outside North America. The 3.5GHz BreezeMax products have been in trials at carriers in Europe and Asia.
The 3.5GHz band is "the most stable environment in a regulatory sense, and it's where we believe mass deployment can be achieved most rapidly", Leary said.
Yankee Group analyst Lindsay Schroth agreed. Outside the western hemisphere, many major carriers already hold spectrum in that range, she said.
By contrast, WiMax deployment in the 2.5GHz range probably will have to wait for decisions by two big US carriers, Sprint and Nextel Communications. Unlicensed 5GHz services probably will remain the realm of enterprises and small rural providers, she added.
"The US market in general is kind of up in the air in terms of how quickly people will deploy stuff," Schroth said.
Meanwhile, panellists at the WCA conference agreed that wireless broadband has tremendous growth potential, but is still years from roll-out.
They predicted that WiMax should become available to customers in 2006.
The five panelists discussing how big wireless broadband can get made few concrete predictions about the growth of wireless broadband, but Alvarion chief executive officer Zvi Slonimsky warned the audience to take his predictions with a grain of salt.
"Obviously, broadband wireless is the next major event in communications," added Reza Ahy, chief executive officer of Aperto Networks, a supplier of broadband wireless access devices.
Some analysts have expressed doubt about WiMax, claiming that the technology has been over-hyped. Critics say it is likely to be an alternative to cable modem or DSL, but by the time WiMax is rolled out, most people who want broadband service will already have it.
Francois Cadorel, marketing director for the Mobile Communications Group at Alcatel, saw WiMax as another option for the owner of a computer or handheld to connect to the internet, said.
"Our vision is a seamless broadband experience - while at home, at the office, or on the road," he said.
Cadorel and other panel members described scenarios where a computer user used Wi-Fi in a home network, then switched to WiMax while taking a laptop to other parts of a city. As such, WiMax would not compete with DSL or even mobile phones, but as a complementary service, said Klaus-Dieter Kohrt, senior vice president for government and industry relations at Siemens Mobile. "It's not about trying to grab someone else's piece of the pie, it's about making the pie bigger," he added.
Adoption of broadband has outpaced the adoption of mobile phones and colour TVs in the US, noted Scott Richardson, general manager of the Broadband Wireless Division at Intel.
That demand for broadband fares well for WiMax, he said, even though others on the panel noted that WiMax service was likely to cost more than $200 a month when it first is available. "On the demand side, it's very clear users want broadband," he added.
Stephen Lawson and Grant Gross write for IDG News Service