Manufacturers and service providers are touting the emerging WiMax wireless technology as a possible rival to wired broadband services.
"We believe that WiMax can happen, and be widely deployed, and be a big deal in the next three years the same way Wi-Fi has been a big deal in the past two years," said Sean Maloney, executive vice-president and general manager of Intel's communications group, at the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) International Technical Symposium & Business Expo in California.
The conference focused on wireless broadband technology, in particular WiMax, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 family of standards.
The WiMax Forum, a group of suppliers and service providers, will, initially, certify products based on the 802.16d standard, designed for wireless base stations with a range as far as 50km. The point-to-multipoint technology will not require a direct line of sight to the customer.
A later version of the standard, 802.16e, will provide a relatively simple upgrade to access points to support mobile customers, according to François Draper, vice-president of sales and marketing at Wavesat and chairman of memberships at the WiMax Forum.
A single base station could transmit hundreds of megabits per second of data, but the standard does not define how much of that capacity a service provider should give an individual customer, Draper said. Carriers typically would offer 2Mbps or more to a small or medium-sized business, and 300Kbps to 400Kbps to consumers.
Intel, which plans to make WiMax chips, expects the technology to hit the market next year for stationary broadband connectivity to businesses and homes and backhaul from Wi-Fi hotspots.
Testing has shown such a technology can support the kinds of services associated with today's DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem services, including video, to homes and businesses in dense urban areas.
Standardisation has boosted product volume and slashed prices on IEEE 802.11 wireless Lan equipment. Intel hopes that service providers will be able to use wireless for affordable broadband in developing countries.
The 802.16d standard should be essentially complete next month and approved in March, Draper said. However, the WiMax Forum would not certify any service provider equipment until the first quarter of 2005, after defining and carrying out a testing system.
Meanwhile, the IEEE 802.16e working group probably will complete its specification at roughly the same time that the first 802.16d products are being certified.
Mobile operator Nextel Communications is studying wireless broadband technologies, including WiMax, said Barry West, company executive vice-president and chief technology officer.
Nextel has licensed MMDS (Multipoint Multichannel Distribution Service) spectrum, in the range of 2.5GHz to 2.7GHz, which is one area where WiMax could be used.
BellSouth is also considering wireless broadband, particularly for providing high-speed internet access to potential customers in less dense areas that have been left out of broadband because of deployment costs, said Sid Ganju, executive director of corporate development at BellSouth.
WiMax may open even more doors in the developing world, where saving the cost of fibre and copper installation is an especially attractive proposition. Neotec, a consortium of mobile operators in Brazil, has tested a wireless broadband system with good results, said José Luiz Frauendorf, Neotec's executive director.
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service