Users and vendors make WiMax plans

Vendors of WiMax wireless technology and services predicted this week at WiMax World in Boston that the emerging technology will vastly enhance wireless bandwidth at a fraction of the current cost.

But some IT managers and analysts, while enthralled with higher wireless bandwidth potential, said the costs of WiMax-type service to business users remain murky, even as some vendors at the show said the expense to carriers will be a fraction of today's cellular wireless costs.

WiMax actually involves two approved wireless standards: one for fixed use and one for mobile use. The nonprofit WiMax Forum has predicted on its Web site that the technology will offer throughput of between 15 Mbit/s and 40 Mbit/s over a range of six miles. By comparison, today's best cellular networks max out at around 700 kbit/s.

In August, US carrier Sprint Nextel announced a US$3 billion investment in WiMax in coming years, and Sprint's chief technology officer Barry West told the conference that WiMax will yield a tenfold improvement in cost and performance per Mbit/s compared with the cost of infrastructure and operations for its cellular network. Sprint has not revealed what it expects to charge businesses or consumers for WiMax services.

Meanwhile, Nortel Networks showed a cellular base station transceiver for mobile wireless that it plans to sell to carriers next year. The display included a promotional sign promising "three times the speed of current wireless networks at one-third the cost."

WiMax in cars?

WiMax World, while overwhelmingly focused on equipment makers and service providers, attracted a few IT professionals from user companies. Roy Russell, founding chief technology officer of Zipcar welcomed WiMax as a potential way of adding bandwidth to the company's fleet of 2,000 cars.

Zipcar rents cars over the Internet in the downtown areas of some North American cities. Its members can use a membership card that they scan on a card reader when they pick up the car to unlock it. Membership information and car status are transmitted wirelessly from Zipcar over Cingular Wireless' GPRS network to each car, Russell said.

With added WiMax bandwidth, Zipcar might be able to install a Wi-Fi access point in each car to allow a user to access the Internet via a handheld or laptop. "The broadband wireless user is our customer," Russell said in a brief interview.

But he predicted that any decision to tap into WiMax service is a "long, long ways away." And Russell, like many others, was unsure who would provide the service and how much it would cost.

Gunnar Kauke, president of American Wireless Broadband (AWB), said his company is about to begin trying out a WiMax transceiver from Motorola in apartment buildings. The wireless Internet service provider is already working with Motorola in a test of broadband over power line technology being used by 10 apartment dwellers in the same Itasca complex. That service has worked successfully for the past two months, offering up to 12 Mbit/sec. of throughput, he said.

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It's a service provider's game

WiMax providers are expected to run the gamut of small and large Internet service providers and carriers, according to vendors and analysts. To avoid wireless interference, business users will not be building WiMax networks on their own; instead, they should expect to purchase it as a service from a wireless carrier who has licensed needed spectrum, which is less susceptible to interference, at great cost, said John Roese, CTO of Nortel. While Nortel expects to market gear such as its transceiver to wireless carriers, it also expects to sell enterprises on enlarging their internal IP networks to handle the emerging wireless broadband network, he said.

TowerStream, is already including precertified WiMax equipment - developed before the wireless standard was certified - in its broadband wireless package of services to 400 business customers in the Boston area. The service offers an average speed of 2.2 Mbit/s, said TowerStream chief executive Jeff Thompson. Instead of focusing only on WiMax technology, TowerStream sells a wireless broadband mix that includes conventional microwave transmissions along with WiMax to create what it called a "Wireless Ring in the Sky." That service is priced at US$5,000 a month for 100 Mbit/s of throughput.

Clearwire, founded by cell phone pioneer Craig McCaw, has announced a WiMax trial in Oregon, in partnership with Motorola and Intel. That trial will last through 2007, according to a statement from Intel. Intel is also backing Pipex's trial of WiMax in the UK.

Even with all the various WiMax trials and new technologies, "WiMax's role is still vague for the enterprise. [WiMax] is truly in its early stages," said Gene Signorini, an analyst at the Yankee Group. The business models are still unclear, and widespread business adoption is a "few years away," Signorini said.

Even though some carriers see cost/performance enhancements with WiMax, business users should wait to hear what their actual costs will be, Signorini said. "You can't bank on costs being" a fraction of today's wireless, he said.