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Intel: Spectrum is the New Frontier

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Intel's vision of an always-connected planet is coming up against finite wireless spectrum, and enterprise had better hope it breaks through or risk spending ten times as much for WiMAX.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip-making giant is helping the industry find a suitable home for wireless Metro Area Networks, which use the IEEE 802.16 or WiMAX standard. The goal is to use the technology as a last-mile alternative for broadband connections to enterprise and consumer markets.

There is a burning need for a high-speed transmission that covers a wider area than 802.11 Wi-Fi. Most of the copper in the world was installed in the late 1940s, followed by fiber optic connections in the 1970s.

The next phase, according to Sean Maloney, executive vice president of Intel's Communications group, is the use of WiMAX in both urban and rural areas. While the company is trying not to hype it as much as it did Wi-Fi, Intel is very committed to seeing the standard play through.

"It's slightly chaotic, because it differs from country to country to country," Maloney said during a press and analyst briefing here. "Four years ago, there was a similar battle over Wi-Fi and, as you know, spectrum can get very political. But if you ask me if WiMAX is going to replace Wi-Fi, the reality is that all of these networks [read Wi-Fi, WiMAX, WCDMA, and 3G] will overlap."

Maloney said Intel has been lobbying the Federal Communications Commission and its Chinese and U.K. counterparts to allow the wireless industry access to the 700MHz frequencies. That part of the spectrum is currently used for UHF television stations that will eventually vacate the space as part of a government-induced transition to digital.

Right now, there are as many as three frequency bands that WiMAX can tap into, including 700 MHz, 2.5MHz and 3.5MHz. But the bigger number does not mean faster or even better coverage. In fact, Maloney noted that the higher the frequency, the harder it is to send over long distances.

"If the Internet delivery providers are forced to use the higher frequencies, it is ten times more expensive in infrastructure than if the standard moves into the lower frequencies," he said.

Maloney said fiber as a high-speed connector has not stopped because of the cost. It stopped because of the land use rights: "Having to get permission from neighbors, breaking up streets and replacing roses are not something that carriers want to deal with," he said.

The key then, according to Intel, is access via transmission towers, which currently serve cellular networks but could easily be outfitted with WiMAX cards. But only those companies with the leasing rights to these towers will be the ones that have control over wireless broadband to the home, Maloney pointed out.

As for WiMAX competing with other wireless broadband technologies such as WCDMA, the Intel executive said he is skeptical that will be the case once the 802.16e (backhaul) comes into play.

"The infrastructure is going modular with more standardized components," Maloney said. Intel is one of a handful of companies that is working to standardize routers and switches with ATCA or advanced telecommunications communications architecture.

Beyond the hype, Intel's WiMAX looks real enough. The company said it will ship silicon based on the 802.16 standard this year. Intel is looking forward to mainstream deployments for wireless DSL CPEs and base stations in 2005. In the 2006 timeframe, Maloney reaffirmed Intel's plans to put WiMAX silicon in laptop processors and is expecting the technology to pop up in it handsets running its XScale family of chips in 2007.