With phones and LANs steadily going wireless and consumer electronics not far behind, one part of the networked world - broadband to the home or business - has stubbornly remained wired in most cases.
Cost, complexity and proprietary systems have held back wireless broadband services that would compete against DSL, cable modem and leased lines. But WiMax, an emerging standards-based set of technologies, could unify the fragmented industry and bring down prices, according to vendors and analysts.
For customers, wireless can mean fast and easy setup, lower cost than some services, and broadband Internet access in places DSL has trouble reaching.
"I called them on a Friday, and it was installed on Tuesday," says Tamara Indianer, manager of a branch of Lincoln Investment Planning. The branch had trouble getting synchronous DSL (SDSL) service after a move.
One carrier said it couldn't reach that site and another estimated two to three weeks for installation, Indianer says. She turned to TowerStream, which uses pre-standard WiMax gear from Aperto Networks. For US$500 per month, a bit more than the cost of the SDSL service but much less than a T-1 rate, the branch got 1M bit/sec in each direction, she says.
TowerStream is looking forward to standardized WiMax gear and lower prices on customer premises equipment (CPE) that should result from interoperability. Vendors and service providers hope a standard will cut development costs and let many vendors compete, with more choice all around. The WiMax Forum, an industry group working to promote 802.16 adoption, plans to begin certifying interoperable products by year-end.
It's the same idea that's driven Wi-Fi's popularity, and Intel has invoked that wireless LAN phenomenon in predicting a rapid ramp-up for WiMax. What Wi-Fi did for the LAN, the longer-range WiMax could do for metropolitan areas and last-mile access. It initially will use the IEEE 802.16d specification and support connections to fixed locations at typical speeds from 300K to 2M bit/sec, over a range of as much as 30 miles. A later version, based on the 802.16e standard, which might be finished in about a year, is being designed to support mobility.
But some analysts and industry participants say the outlook is more complicated than with Wi-Fi. In addition to daunting competition from other technologies, WiMax faces questions about how it will use the airwaves in the U.S. and abroad. Product volume, the key to hoped-for proliferation, will depend in part on how those questions are addressed.
Intel and others have high hopes. By the third quarter of next year, CPE for a WiMax service to an office or home will cost less than $500, predicts Kevin Suitor, vice president of business development at Redline Communications, a maker of 802.16-based equipment. By 2007, it will cost less than $200, he says. Beyond that, with mobility, CPE will be able to ship in the form of internal components in notebook PCs at an estimated price of $50 to $100, Suitor adds. However, some observers and industry participants don't expect a repeat of the Wi-Fi cycle.
"The scale is not necessarily the same kind of scale that you have with the Wi-Fi chips," says Tad Neeley, an analyst at RHK. "The cost curve I look at with this is far more what DSL modems and cable modems did. I don't think it's going to be the Wi-Fi cost curve."
Unlike Wi-Fi, which has been deployed using primarily one band of spectrum (2.4 GHz) that is unlicensed nearly everywhere, WiMax is based on standards that allow for any frequency band between 2 GHz and 11 GHz. The WiMax Forum is narrowing that by developing profiles for specific spectrum bands, says Francois Draper, vice president of sales and marketing at WiMax chip developer Wavesat Technologies and chairman of memberships at the WiMax Forum.
Although the first profiles aren't expected until September, the group is lining up around three bands: one around 5.8 GHz, which is unlicensed in many countries; a second around 3.5 GHz, licensed in some regions; and a third around 2.5 GHz, licensed in the U.S. and much of the Americas.
The WiMax Forum in early June was set to announce a regulatory working group to promote global harmonization of the management of those bands. It also will work for the allocation of spectrum in lower bands such as those the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is considering for reallocation from TV stations.
Conformance among governments on spectrum issues is complicated, bringing into account formats - how capacity is divided up among subscribers - as well as the spectrum itself, says Nitin Shah, an analyst at RHK. "The diversity of spectrum and formats does limit or impede the rate of adoption of WiMax," Shah says.
Licensed frequencies are critical for carriers to offer business-class WiMax services, according to vendors and industry analysts. That further complicates the picture with bureaucracy, politics and frequency allocation, Shah says.
Intel says it can do the integration needed to propel the market forward. It will follow the WiMax Forum's lead on frequencies for fixed and mobile WiMax equipment, says Joe English, director of marketing for WiMax at Intel. Intel expects to integrate WiMax in its Centrino wireless chip set along with Wi-Fi beginning in late 2006, with a wide rollout in 2007. The company envisions one Centrino chip set that supports all the frequencies used for WiMax worldwide and can be produced in volumes large enough to keep prices down, English says.
Some service providers are anxious for those economies to come into play. Covad Communications sees wireless as a tool for reaching customers it can't get to with DSL for regulatory or other reasons, says Ron Marquardt, technical director. The company would prefer to use WiMax because of the expected benefits of standardization, but it's not committed yet, he says.
Neotec, a consortium of mobile operators in Brazil, wants to offer wireless broadband for about $20 per month and says it thinks it can do that by not laying wires. It has tested a proprietary system that uses licensed spectrum around 2.5 GHz and is looking to WiMax for the price-cutting power of standardization.
In the end, market momentum might shape regulation, Wavesat's Draper says.
"If the industry wields its baseball bat, they may make the governments move faster," he says.