Wireless industry gears up for WiMax

By Marguerite Reardon, CNET News.com
Published on ZDNet News: March 26, 2007, 4:00 AM PT

As top executives gather in Orlando, Fla., this week at the CTIA Wireless 2007 trade show, an emerging technology called WiMax will likely be a hot topic among carriers and equipment makers from around the world. Many, in fact, are gearing up to deploy WiMax services.

Mobile operators have barely rolled out their new third-generation wireless networks, and they’re already talking about the fourth generation. As next-generation cellular technologies–including those of the Long Term Evolution (LTE) project, whose mission is to guide the evolution of GSM cellular networks–have trouble getting off the ground, the industry has been turning its attention toward the WiMax packet-based technology.

“If the 3GSM show is any indication, then I think we will be hearing a lot about WiMax at CTIA,” said Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of marketing for the Wimax Forum, referring to the 3GSM World Congress trade show held in February in Barcelona. “The technology is getting close to commercialization, and there has been a lot of buzz the past several months.”

WiMax, which is similar to another packet-based wireless technology, Wi-Fi, already has the foundation for a strong ecosystem thanks to support from handset and infrastructure makers including Motorola, Samsung and Nokia, as well as from chipmaker Intel.

These companies are all expected to have WiMax products in the market sometime this year, and some will be shown off at CTIA. Samsung, for example, is expected to have on hand some of its already-announced WiMax-ready gear, including a handset, ultra-mobile PC and a new USB dongle that offers wireless broadband for laptops.

The WiMax Forum, the industry group that promotes the technology, has almost completed the necessary certification requirements for new products, another major step that could help push deployment. According to Shakouri, products using the 2.3GHz spectrum, which is used primarily in South Korea, will be certified by midyear. Products using the 3.5GHz will be certified in the third quarter, and products using the 2.5GHz spectrum, which is used mostly in the U.S., will have certification available by the end of the year.

WiMax, whose transmission distances range from a few hundred feet in densely populated areas to more than a mile in suburban areas, can support peak data speeds of 20 megabits per second, although average-user data rates fall between 2mbps and 8mbps. Data rates for the next-stage 3G cellular service–sometimes called 3.5G–are about 3mbps.

Asian markets lead the way
Momentum among carriers is already building. In Japan more WiMax-compatible spectrum will be allocated by the government later this year. Korea Telecom in South Korea is already committed to launching its WiMax service this year. There are also plans to launch WiMax services in India, Malaysia and Pakistan, as well as in parts of Eastern Europe, Shakouri said. And the government in Taiwan is spending $1 billion to encourage the manufacture and development of 2.5GHz WiMax products and applications.

In the U.S. Sprint, the No. 3 carrier, has already said it plans to spend $3 billion over the next two years to build a WiMax network, which is expected to be able to provide service to 100 million people by the end of 2008. Sprint is using its existing 2.5GHz spectrum, half of which it acquired from its merger with Nextel, to deliver the new service.

Earlier this year, it announced that Chicago and Baltimore/ Washington, D.C would be the first two markets to get the service, by the end of 2007. Nokia, which is providing handsets and infrastructure for the network, named an additional four markets, in Texas, for deployment in early 2008: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Currently, the only other operator in the U.S. using WiMax is a start-up called Clearwire, which was founded by mobile-industry billionaire Craig McCaw. Today it delivers WiMax broadband services to fixed locations, but eventually the company will offer mobile service as well. Clearwire, which raised $900 million in venture backing this summer, went public earlier this month.

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