Intel Corp. is set to announce a client chipset that supports both the fixed and mobile versions of the WiMax wireless broadband technology.
Arguably WiMax's biggest cheerleader, the company is working to make the case for the technology with a chipset roadmap that targets devices ranging from video games to digital cameras -- the idea being that if the clients are there, the carriers will come.
WiMax comes in two basic flavors -- one for fixed wireless and one for mobile. The fixed version, handily known as 802.16d-2004, was designed to be a replacement or supplement for broadband cable access or DSL. A more recently ratified version, 802.16e-2005, also can support fixed wireless applications, but it allows for roaming among base stations as well. Thus the two standards are generally known as "fixed WiMax" and "mobile WiMax."
Intel already sells a fixed WiMax chipset called Rosedale, for use in boxy residential modems. At the Wireless Communications Association International (WCA) 2006 conference in Washington this week, the company will unveil Rosedale 2, which has the capability of working both in the 802.16d and 802.16e modes.
The chip is meant for use in residential gateways and modems, but the company also is exploring its use in picocell base stations. While Intel has a history of outsourcing its early wireless efforts, Rosedale 2 was "painfully designed in house," says Yung Hahn, general manager of the WiMax product division at Intel.
By the end of the year, Intel plans to introduce a single-chip radio called Ofer-R, which supports both WiFi and WiMax. A PowerPoint presentation touting Intel's WiFi/WiMax integration plans shows a parade of devices -- including a camera and an iPod. Clearly Intel's vision for WiMax is data and not VOIP.
"We're hoping that in the next five years you'll see much more experimentation on the device side, and we're hoping to show proof points of new business models that make WiMax unique," Hahn says. "We're not under the delusion that the cellular industry is going to go away any time soon. They've done a great job of delivering voice to consumers. We never thought mobile voice would be the fundamental application.
"We have a target. We would ultimately like to see WiMax modems get below $50. You hit that mark and magic things happen."
Still, regardless of what Intel does on the client side, service provider support is necessary to make WiMax fly. Unlike WiFi, WiMax is designed to run in licensed bands of spectrum.
"WiMax will be ready for prime time when carriers start billing end users for services that are running over a WiMax network," says Patrick Donegan, a senior analyst at Heavy Reading. "When all's said and done, it's going to be the WiMax infrastructure and terminal vendors that have to build and optimize that network together with integrated applications. Anything that others in the value chain have to say about commercial launches is almost immaterial".
"We're not waiting for the carriers," Hahn says. "Each of the regional teams is engaged with a series of operators. We've engaged with all the major ones and are in various stages of technology, but also having a lot of deep discussion about structuring a new business model where we both win out of this process -- and also how Intel silicon can play a role. We're obviously interested in driving our platform solutions into the operator space."
Internationally, WiMax has been finding a home among emerging markets that don't have a decent wired infrastructure. In the U.S., several carriers -- wireless, wireline, and cable operators -- have voiced interest in WiMax. Some are in trials. But no major carrier has launched a major WiMax network. One potential candidate to do that is Sprint Nextel Corp. which has a swath of spectrum in the 2.5GHz range that it must use by 2009, per FCC regulations. WiMax is among the radio technologies that can operate in that range. Sprint is supposed to announce its plans for the spectrum by the end of the summer.
"The clear bellwether is going to be what does Sprint do?" says Chris Rauh, vice president of marketing for Nitronex Corp. , which makes WiMax power transistors. "There's a single shining light that says mobile WiMax goes where Sprint goes. Sprint's kind of famous for going back and forth, but their choice will help to decide the market in the U.S."
That said, WiMax equipment makers such as Nortel Networks Ltd. And Motorola say they have been garnering interest from cable providers. WiMax is also a possibility for backhaul technology in municipal WiFi networks.
"For sure, Sprint could be a nice jumpstart given all the frequency they have, but not a prerequisite to a big market by any means," says Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing for Alvarion Ltd., which makes base stations for WiMax. "Mobile WiMax and demand for broadband mobility in the U.S. and worldwide -- and all the companies that will want to be involved in that make this a much, much bigger phenomenon than just Sprint. That would be like saying the Internet or mobile cellular or satellite TV were determined by one company."