Wireless vendors plan cheap, high-speed MANs

Major chip and wireless equipment manufacturers Tuesday announced plans to back development of standards-based wireless metropolitan-area network (MAN) products that can provide 70Mbit/sec. of broadband data over a 30-mile range to customers -- and the equipment needed to access the service could be as cheap as today's wireless LAN access cards.

The companies, all members of the San Diego-based Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access Inc. (WiMAX) alliance, believe that by basing their products on the IEEE 802.16 wireless MAN standard, they can achieve the same economies of scale seen in WLAN products based on the IEEE 802.11b standard, according to WiMAX President Margaret Labrecque.

Labrecque said at a news conference today that alliance companies, which include Airspan Networks Inc., Alvarion Ltd., Aperto Networks, Ensemble Communications Inc., Fujitsu Microelectronics America Inc., Intel Corp., Nokia Corp., Proxim Inc. and Wi-LAN Inc., expect to start shipping products in the second half of 2004.

The 802.16 standard supports operation in a number of licensed and unlicensed frequency bands, including 1 GHz to 2 GHz. Wi-Fi WLAN gear now in wider use operates in the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. The 802.16 standard also supports operation in the 10-GHz band and from 12 GHz to 66 GHz.

WiMAX envisions 802.16 products as a cost-effective alternative to today's current broadband options: telephone company T1 (1.54Mbit/sec.) circuits for enterprises and broadband cable service or Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) for small businesses or residences, Labrecque said. Wireless base station equipment would cost under US$20,000, she said, with each base station capable of serving 60 enterprise customers with T1 circuits as well as a mix of residential and small business customers at lower DSL-type speeds of 256K or 384Kbit/sec.

Besides these uses, WiMAX also views 802.16-based systems as ideal to handle "backhaul" from 802.11b Wi-Fi hot spots -- such as those being installed nationwide by Intel-backed Cometa Networks Inc. (see story) to a high-speed network connection, Labrecque said. She said that an 802.11b card would not work on an 802.16 network, although a router could serve as a bridge between the two wireless systems.

Dean Chang, director of product development at Aperto Networks, a manufacturer of broadband wireless equipment in Milpitas, Calif., said at the news conference that he expects to see a quick drop in the cost of customer premise equipment (CPE) next year, once the industry adopts the standard. Chang said it currently is between US$500 and US$1,000 for CPE gear per installation. He expects that to drop to US$300 once 802.16 equipment hits the market in 2004, and eventually down to the US$30 price range of today's LAN Wi-Fi cards.

Labrecque agreed. Though she repeatedly declined to say whether Intel plans to develop its own line of 802.16 chips, Labrecque did say it was "possible" for manufacturers to push the price of 802.16 chips down to the range of Wi-Fi cards because "they are the same die size." She said Intel has a "vision of a billion connected PCs" and that "the availability of broadband drives demand for higher powered PCs."

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said he believes that Intel intends to add 802.16 chip sets to its portfolio of wireless products, which includes Centrino chips with built-in WLAN functionality, which were introduced last month. Intel "wants to be a wireless company," he said.

Jeff Orr, product marketing manager in the fixed wireless division of Proxim in Sunnyvale, Calif., said 802.16 CPE gear would come in a small package -- pizza box size -- and will include "self-install" window mount antennas as well as rooftop equipment.

The IEEE is also working on a mobile 802.16e standard, which Mathias predicted could eventually rival 802.11b products. But Chang, who is the chairman of the IEEE 802.16e subcommittee, said that he expects completion of the final specifications by the end of 2003. He declined to predict when 802.16e products would hit the market.

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