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NextWave Mixes Technologies

What’s the only thing better than Wi-Fi? WiMax. And the only thing better than WiMax? You guessed it: Wi-Fi.

Since each has its strengths and weaknesses, it seems logical enough to put them together on a single chip that would allow users to enjoy the best of both worlds.

That’s just what WiMax champion NextWave Wireless plans to do, according to an announcement made earlier this month by its NextWave Broadband division. Due out in the first half of 2008, the NW2000 mobile subscriber platform will deliver an ultra-low power, integrated WiMax/Wi-Fi solution to support power-limited mobile devices in a wide range of frequency bands.

“We think that integrating Wi-Fi with a technology like WiMax really provides the best answer,” says Roy Berger, executive vice president of corporate marketing and communications for NextWave Wireless. “It supports the existing Wi-Fi ecosystem, but at the same time it is going to provide customers with abilities that go well beyond what Wi-Fi can offer.”

NextWave is eager to support that “existing Wi-Fi ecosystem.” Despite its position in the WiMax world, the company acknowledges the prevalence of Wi-Fi in the market at the moment. Perhaps the future will be thoroughly WiMax, but “right now, what our customers are telling us is that we have a massive embedded base of Wi-Fi enabled devices, along with a very large embedded base of Wi-Fi access points, and they don’t necessarily want to force their customers out of their comfort zone,” Berger says.

To keep users in their comfort zone, the new chip will allow for the construction of devices that can swap seamlessly between WiMax and Wi-Fi. The chips will also be designed to reduce power consumption as compared to present power-intensive solutions. In addition, frequency agility will make the chips suitable for a global market.

That agility forms a significant piece of the NextWave battle plan. In addition to its U.S. licensed spectrum footprint, which currently covers some 248 million people, the company also holds significant nationwide frequencies in Germany and Switzerland. This week, it announced that it had acquired even more spectrum in Austria, Slovakia and Croatia.

NextWave’s strategy is to use these broad frequency holdings to help customers jump aboard its chip offerings. “If you are going to come out with an automobile in an age of horses, you will probably sell more of those if you can also provide those folks with roads,” Berger says. “For operators who want to deploy our [seamless WiMax/Wi-Fi network] technologies, we can provide them the underlying technology, but also provide them the licensed spectrum they are going to need.”

NextWave is not the only company to pursue the notion of a mixed WiMax/Wi-Fi chipset. Six months ago, Intel announced design completion of its first mobile WiMax baseband chip. Combined with the company’s previously announced single-chip, multi-band WiMax/Wi-Fi radio, the pair creates a complete chipset called the Intel WiMax Connection 2300.

So the technology exists, thanks especially to the codification of WiMax standards. What remains to be seen is this: what exactly will the new dual chips be used for?

Berger foresees the chips, and especially their WiMax components, being used to stabilize and enhance quality of service for a range of high-intensity applications. Mobile voice over IP, streaming video, video on demand -- all these high-bandwidth apps could be helped by a dual-capability device, he says.

While any technological evolution typically draws at least some degree of consumer push-back at first, NextWave is not particularly concerned about the perennial issue of consumer acceptance this time, largely because the WiMax/Wi-Fi relationship will be largely invisible to the end user. “As long as they have a technology that is easy to use and easily installed and that they can afford, I think they will be happy with it,” Berger says.

This is very much in keeping with NextWave’s overall approach to connectivity. “The strategy is to provide our customers with the most capable, rich and flexible chips,” Berger says. In this case, the new chip concept, he says, “provides a seamless path into WiMax, without having to do a hard cut-off away from Wi-Fi.”