Intel ventures outside

The chip giant wants WiMax— its high-speed data access technology for mobile devices — to become an industry standard. But it has to convince industry experts of its benefits first

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By  Caroline Denslow Published  August 14, 2005

|~|main_wimax.jpg|~|Intel believes the adoption of WiMax by the industry could finally allow it to move outside of chip manufacturing — and carve out a lucrative new market for itself. |~|Delivering high-speed connectivity over wireless hasn’t been easy. Laws of physics ordain that data speed, distance and mobility must not befriend each other. On one side, there are technologies, such as wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi ), that delivers high bandwidth but works only within a very short range — around 100 metres. New-generation mobile technologies such as 2.5G can reach long distances but only if the word ‘mega’ is erased from the downloader’s lexicon. But that is about to change. WiMax, a new set of wireless standards being pushed by Intel, has the potential to alter the way consumers and enterprises access the internet. It uses radio waves in the frequency band of 2 GHz to 11GHz to transmit bandwidth in doses that are large enough to leave wired last mile redundant. Bandwidth is transmitted using base stations much like Wi-Fi, but WiMax waves travel much longer — up to 50 km. That, at least, is what the WiMax Forum is gunning for. The WiMax Forum — Worldwide Microwave Interoperability Forum — which is led by Intel, is a not-for-profit body dedicated to promoting the technology and harmonising standards. The forum boasts 300 members, from unknown start-ups to the giants of the telecom and IT industry, such as Cisco, Motorola, Nokia and IBM. They are working on a technology that is being built around the 802.16 family of standards. As of today, two versions of this standard — the 802.16a and 802.16d standards — have reached some level of maturity and can be thought of as being close to ready. Both enable WiMax in a fixed scenario. Work is also under way on 802.16e, which — once completed — would add mobility to WiMax. However, WiMax is not the first time a technology has sought to defy the laws of physics. 3G, too, was supposed to deliver high-speed access over mobile devices. But the technology is running late and its business model looks shaky, not least because of the huge license fees paid by over-enthusiastic operators. There is also a rather simple technology that sneaked its way in, which makes it possible for users to access the internet wirelessly: Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is found in most notebooks and mobile devices — you would be hard-pressed to find a notebook that does not come Wi-Fi ready — and has become the more popular choice when it comes to wireless connectivity. Indeed, Wi-Fi adoption is booming. Today there are an estimated 500,000 hotspots in the world — about 45,000 of which were added in the last 12 months. The fact that Wi-Fi operates in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band helped matters too. Operators did not have to deal with any regulatory mess. Unlike WiMax, Wi-Fi did not bother to solve the distance problem — it works well only within a radius of 100 metres. But it does deliver a lot of bandwidth — newer versions are targeting 40Mbits/second. Nevertheless, Intel has taken lessons from Wi-Fi’s success to heart. The US-based chipmaker has spent years — and billions of dollars — trying to make a mark outside the microprocessor business, which it dominates. Until now, it has had little to show for its efforts. But if Intel pulls off WiMax, it would have another lucrative market to itself. Like Wi-Fi, the underlying idea for WiMax is simple: Use radio waves to transmit bandwidth over reasonable, rather than infinite, distances; enable partial rather than complete mobility and push the industry towards standards that keep costs low and ensure interoperability between products. In short, put out a simple solution to the last mile problem within metro WAN (wide area network) or metro zone, as the WiMax Forum calls it.||**||Radio waves|~||~||~|Transmitting bandwidth using radio waves is not a new idea. But there were two problems with the earlier approach. For one, it was done in higher frequency bands — 5.25 GHz to 5.85 GHz — that are unlicensed in most countries. While this helped keep the regulators out, tall buildings came in the way; at such high frequencies waves could not bend or reflect around obstacles. As a result, a clear line of sight between the transmitting and receiving antennae was a must. This meant that the technology’s usefulness in urban environments was seriously compromised. Secondly, there was a complete lack of open standards. Implementations of the technology were proprietary and hence, expensive. For example, a customer premise installation could set you back by about US$5000. WiMax, on the other hand, took the idea of radio waves as a means of pushing bandwidth but using lower frequency bands. By doing so, WiMax was able to get around the problem of tall buildings and other such obstacles, making it possible for the technology to work without having line of sight. Because radio waves in lower frequency bands can bend, it can penetrate walls to a certain extent as well. And by adding standards to the technology, the WiMax Forum expects customer premise equipment prices to fall to as low as US$100. Regulators too can be kept at bay since WiMax standards have been defined in such a way that the technology can be implemented in a very wide range of frequency bands. However, according to Benjamin Ellis, head of product and marketing at Juniper Networks Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), there is another reason to be bullish about WiMax: Intel. “The chipmaker virtually controls the terminal devices, like notebook PCs. Therefore, making sure these devices — millions of them — are WiMax-ready shouldn’t be too difficult for Intel,” Ellis says. ||**||The last mile|~||~||~|The lure of having 40Mbits/ second per channel over distances of up to 50 km has led to much hype around the technology. And that is just the beginning. A new standard — 802.16e — would take WiMax mobile. “By late 2006, WiMax is expected to be available for deployment in notebooks for mobile applications, and by late 2007 to 2008, WiMax is expected to be available in PDAs and handsets,” says Dania El-Kadi, marketing and communication manager, Intel GCC. According to Intel, deploying the technology would be relatively easy and inexpensive. Costly and time-consuming trenching and cabling will not be needed. Base stations are expected to cost somewhere around US$8000, which will compare rather favourably with 3G base stations. The networks can be built incrementally as it only requires adding more base stations and channels. In its first avatar (codified under the standard 802.16d), WiMax will most likely be deployed to relay bandwidth to commercial and residential buildings. “As of now, I think the main usage of the technology will be in the static last mile,” says Ellis. “Users will connect to the network either through a wired local area network (WLAN) or Wi-Fi.” Ellis finds WiMax to be a compelling proposition for fixed line operators. “It’s a perfect solution for fixed line operators looking at extending their networks in rural areas or to areas that have lower user densities. Broadband technologies, such as DSL (digital subscriber line) or fibre, are very expensive to deploy in such situations,” he explains. Even governments should find it handy, El-Kadi adds. “For governments, it represents a leapfrogging opportunity that helps mend the digital gap between countries and between rural and urban regions within the same country,” she says. In that sense, WiMax should complement rather than compete with existing technologies, according to Alan Sicher, senior wireless product manager, Dell. “I think the first version is relevant to and can complement other existing ways of delivering infrastructure. This could be quite useful,” Sicher notes. The case for WiMax as a technology that complements existing networks sounds compelling. Andy McKinnon, WiMax principal for Motorola Networks EMEA, is quite excited about using WiMax to back-haul traffic. According to McKinnon, the technology would enable telephone exchanges to be linked to each other over a cheap, easy-to-install WiMax backbone. Mobile services operators can also deploy WiMax base stations to get around the problem of residents objecting to full-fledged cellular base stations too close to their homes.||**||Network issues|~||~||~|But as with any new technology, there are issues with WiMax. There is, for example, the theoretical possibility that 2.4GHz-band WiMax might interfere with Wi-Fi in some countries, depending on the exact frequencies allocated and used. WiMax will also have to be considerably cheaper than existing technologies, particularly on customer premise equipment side for it to achieve mainstream adoption. While open standards help reduce costs, reductions would be sizeable only if deployments are extensive. Equipment makers will need volume to push down prices. The true cost of setting up a network will also depend upon the frequency band being used. “For higher frequency ranges, you’ll need more base stations to get the same amount of coverage. So all this talk about low cost might remain just hype,” says Sicher. That leads to the biggest question of all. “Who will deploy these networks? Who will support the standard?” asks Angelo Lamme, senior manager, wireless product marketing, Symbol Technologies, a major maker of mobile devices for enterprise users. Established telecom companies are reluctant to jump the gun on a new technology these days. Most of them have already invested in some version of DSL or 3G, both of which do the same job as WiMax. Besides, the mobile version of WiMax is untested as yet. Worse, it will not be available before late 2007. “WiMax has got a fair share of hype as it is supported by Intel, and Intel owns the chip market [for terminal devices],” says Abderrafi Belfakih, manager, systems engineering group, Cisco Middle East. “There are other standards such as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication Service) and EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimised). In fact they are more mature and customers have already used these standards,” he adds. Newer versions of competing technologies also loom large over WiMax. A new software addition to UMTS called HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) makes it possible to deliver 14Megabits/second per channel. “Unless existing players deploy WiMax, the competitive disadvantage it might face is that it will have to operate without the advantage of voice subscribers subsidising the technology in early stages,” says Sicher. Although both Dell and Symbol are part of the WiMax Forum, neither Sicher nor Lamme promise a product supporting WiMax anytime soon. They are waiting to see the extent of rollout before committing any significant resources. Another big player, 3Com, is also adopting a wait-and-see policy. “WiMax is a very nascent technology. We haven’t seen any significant installations,” says Khalid Khan, marketing manager, 3Com Middle East and North Africa. El-Kadi of Intel disagrees: “In general, 3G excels where voice is a priority and high speed mobility is desirable. WiMax will excel when high speed data is a priority and slower — or no — mobility is required.” “Established players are unlikely to move aggressively on mobile WiMax, leaving it to disenfranchised wireline operators and equipment vendors with weaker mobile infrastructure market -share positions to pick up the early pace,” notes Gabriel Brown, chief analyst of telecom research firm Unstrung Insider, in a recently published report. But in the end, there may not be a single choice. Chips supporting multiple standards are becoming increasingly that common. There are notebook PCs that incorporate multiple connectivity options, including Wi-Fi, infrared and Bluetooth, all in one card. WiMax and the rest of the standards too might get added. Intel has enough clout at the device level to ensure that. And that would be good news for IT managers, too. They won’t have to place costly bets that are too risky.||**||

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