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WiMax: Wi-Fi killer or dead on arrival?

Panelists at Interop 2005 say WiMax could displace Wi-Fi, cable and DSL, but some question whether it will ever find its niche.

LAS VEGAS -- Will WiMax be the connectivity panacea that displaces Wi-Fi, cable and DSL, or will it be irrelevant...

before it ever reaches the mainstream?

That was the subject of a panel discussion at the Interop 2005 conference. Moderator Bob Egan, president and CEO of North Providence, R.I.-based consulting firm Mobile Competency, told attendees that even the experts don't know for sure.

Egan said because there are often gaps in cellular- and 802.11-based networks, the long-range wireless data transmission technology could be a natural fit in some circumstances, but it remains to be seen whether the market will accept WiMax and if providers can profit from it.

Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing for Mountain View, Calif.-based broadband access vendor Alvarion Inc., said WiMax was intended to provide wireless backhaul for last-mile links, but that's about to change.

"WiMax is being used today as a fixed technology, but the 802.16e wireless WiMax specification is coming," O'Neal said. This will enable to WiMax to complement or perhaps displace existing end-point access technologies like Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable, Wi-Fi and third-generation (3G) wireless WAN services offered by cellular providers, he added.

Ron Peck, director of platform and solution marketing in Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp.'s WiMax group, said Intel is aggressively pursuing the technology, particularly 802.16e, for future notebook computer chips.

The chipmaker last month shipped its first WiMax component, based on an early version of the technology. For widespread adoption to become reality, Peck said, WiMax must remain an open standard.

"The vast majority of the people working on the technology today are approaching it from a low-royalty or no-royalty approach," Peck said, "but that's a work in progress."

However, Jeff Belk, senior vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Qualcomm, said radio access technologies like WiMax are "painful, painful things" to develop because there are so many complicated steps in the development, production and deployment process.

"It will come around, but you're not going to go from standardization to millions of units without the painful steps that have been around for some time," Belk said, adding that it took Wi-Fi many years to become ubiquitous.

Khurram Sheikh, chief technology adviser in Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint Corp.'s wireless broadband division, said his business hopes WiMax will someday complement the Evolution Data Optimized-based wireless data service that it will offer nationwide by the end of the year.

"From a customer perspective, we want to provide a disruptive user experience" that will differentiate its wireless data offerings from those of competitors," Sheikh said. "We believe people are going to use gigabits of wireless data on wireless devices," he added, noting that Sprint already has 10 million wireless data subscribers.

Peck said 802.16d, the newest fixed WiMax specification, has been finalized. The WiMax Forum industry group is expected to begin interoperability testing as early as July, and certified products could hit the market by the end of the year. He said work on 802.16e continues and certified products are likely to arrive in 2006.

For more information

Read our exclusive WiMax Q&A with Intel's Ron Peck.

Columnist John Shepler takes a look inside Intel's new WiMax chip.

Ultimately, Peck said, WiMax's success will be determined by the interest of service providers and the efforts of vendors like Intel to convince them to use standardized products.

David King, chairman and chief executive officer of Mountain View, Calif.-based AirTight Networks, said that it remains to be seen if WiMax will find a niche in between the short-range Wi-Fi services and cellular wireless WAN offerings.

However, O'Neal said it's important to temper speed and range expectations. It's been widely reported that fixed WiMax can offer 70 Mbps data transfer rates over a distance of 30 miles, but O'Neal said "that's a myth" because it's not full duplex and its largest channel is 20 MHz. He said rates between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps over a shorter distance are more reasonable.

Attendee Rusty Smith, senior systems programmer with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said the university is currently deploying 2,000 Wi-Fi access points across its 933-acre campus, and said WiMax "could be a nice play for us in a couple of years" as a supplemental technology.

But despite its potential, Smith said with 802.11 and wireless WAN technologies already so widely used, it's hard to say whether WiMax will ever find its footing.

"Nobody knows where it'll play by the time it gets to where it would be commonly used," Smith said.

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