WiMax gets the big one - Intel commits to local wireless broadband

by Guy Kewney | posted on 16 July 2003

WiMAX is a standards promoting body, aiming to do for WMAN - wireless metro area networking, or 802.16a - what the WiFi alliance did for 802.11 - and develop a universal "local wireless broadband" standard around the world. The WiMAX struggle for recognition has been immeasurably enhanced by the Intel announcement that it was going to develop silicon.

Guy Kewney

Intel will work with Alvarion, in the race to produce the first WiMAX compliant chips, the two companies announced. The companies say they plan to be "first to launch" by combining Intel's 802.16a chips with Alvarion's next-generation Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) system.

"The broadband wireless access market segment is currently fragmented due to a large number of non-interoperable proprietary solutions being offered by small equipment manufacturers," said Jim Johnson, vice president and general manager of Intel's Wireless Networking Group. "The market dynamics are expected to significantly change with Intel entering as a volume silicon supplier of standards-based 802.16a silicon and leading companies like Alvarion producing products based on our silicon."

Intel is a founder member of WiMAX, and is now promoting WMAN standards as something which will "enable" other wireless, because 802.16a has a good range.

When trying to get Internet signals out to remote areas, WiFi would work pretty much as well, but there are regulations limiting WiFi radios to 1 milliwatt of power output in most countries, mainly to avoid having different users interfere with each other.

That means that it isn't seriously practicable to use WiFi over distances of much more than five miles, and even that can only be done in ideal countryside - without tall trees, tall buildings or other obstacles, and no other WiFi users.

But the WiMAX standards will comfortably reach over 50 miles; Intel has announced that it intends to build silicon that will operate over 70 mile links.

The problem facing WiMAX is that WMAN isn't one thing, and it isn't the other. It's both licensed and licence free; and it's both high speed and medium speed.

The plan is to use a WMAN wireless link to take a leased line from an urban area to a remote one, or to link various metro ones; and then hang satellite WiFi hotspots off the end. That's fine! - except that there are already WiFi implementations (from Texas Instruments, for example) running at 100 megabits per second - and WMAN can't even match that, yet.

So the alliance is facing a future where dozens of WiFi users with 54 megabit systems are all sharing a single WMAN 70 megabit link.

That sounds worse than it is. It will work today - indeed, obviously it does, because people are using 11 megabit WiFi to distribute leased line data to communities. But it only works because people expect half a megabit on a "fast" broadband link. Once people are accustomed to faster, there will be contention issues - and pressure to install ordinary fibre into rural areas will rise again.

It remains to be seen if Alvarion ends up totally pleased with its new alliance. Intel's plans are as clear as usual - dominance. It doesn't play, except to win.

You can discuss this article on our discussion board.