Is Intel Now the Wireless MAN?

Not many years ago, wireless networks were hugely expensive, often totally incompatible and were barely a blip on the public radar screen. With the help of the 802.11 standard and an industry seal of approval, high-priced proprietary gear turned into the inexpensive building blocks of Wi-Fi networks in millions of homes and offices.

Now, chip-making giant Intel and other supporters of fixed wireless broadband access hope they can turn that industry into the next wireless success story.

Soon after the IEEE approved 802.16a in January as the new standard for long-range wireless broadband, Sriram Viswanathan, keeper of Intel’s investment purse strings (he’s their managing director of strategic investments), declared “802.11 is the first key disruption. 802.16 is the next.”

Attempting to prevent people from being “wrapped up in the hype” surrounding 802.16a is “quite futile,” says Jupiter Research broadband analyst Joe Laszlo. Laszlo believes 802.16a can help areas not served by cable or DSL, but is not the killer technology proponents believe.

Intel and a group of other gear makers recently announced that the WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability of Microwave Access) Forum would do for wireless metropolitan area networks (MANs) what the Wi-Fi Alliance has done for wireless local area networks (LANs). Products based on the 802.16a standard (nicknamed WirelessMAN) are expected to appear late in 2004 with the WiMAX Forum handing out their seal of approval in 2005.

Along with Intel, the WiMAX Forum membership includes Airspan Networks, Aperto Networks, Ensemble Communications, Fujitsu, Nokia, OFDM Forum, Proxim and Wi-LAN.

The “Last-Mile”

The WirelessMAN standard has a range up to 30 miles with a data rate of up to 70 Mbits per second, capable of providing 60 businesses with Internet connections at T1 speeds of 1.5 Megabits or up to 400 homes at DSL rates. Dr. Roger Marks, chairman of the IEEE’s 802.16 working group, says a typical 802.16a setup would have a data throughput of 10Mbps with a three to five mile radius. Your mileage will vary depending on available bandwidth, according to all involved.

While broadband wireless is strewn with bankruptcies (remember Teligent and Winstar of the late 1990s?) and bad ideas (Nokia recently aborted its Rooftop venture), the second coming of fixed wireless is marked by 802.16a including the popular low-frequency unlicensed bands. WirelessMAN stretches from 2-11GHz, an area that already encompasses 802.11b, a, and g. The point is not lost on vendors or analysts.

Commercial Success

By including the lower frequencies, WirelessMAN has a better chance of having the same economies of scale as 802.11 radios, believes Russ Craig, analyst for the Aberdeen Group research firm.

“Low cost consumer equipment has been the missing catalyst for large volume broadband wireless deployments,” said Mark Foley, CEO of RF Magic, a maker of chips for broadband applications.

WiMAX President Margaret LaBrecque, who is also part of Intel’s broadband program, is hoping the popularization of 802.16a will mean the current $10,000 price tag for a WirelessMAN base station or the $1,000 subscriber unit will drop to a more consumer-friendly level.

Along with providing an alternative to the telephone company’s DSL or cable outlet’s cable modes for “last-mile” broadband connections, Intel sees 802.16a as playing a role in the red-hot Wi-Fi marketplace. WirelessMAN can serve as the “backhaul” or Internet connection for Wi-Fi hotspots. While 802.16a and 802.11 are incompatible, making a direct connection impractical, Intel and others are hoping that barrier is soon removed, opening up WirelessMAN to every wireless-enabled laptop.

But there could be some complications. Along with possible interference issues and a new 802.11 standard, some companies aren’t in a hurry to join the race to 802.11a.

Waiting for Mobility

While 802.16 addressed fixed wireless in a line of sight atmosphere and 802.16a is non-line-of-sight will include the popular unlicensed frequencies, companies such as Flarion and Navini Networks are holding out for the more mobile 802.16e and 802.20.

Expected to be complete by the end of 2003, 802.16e will introduce mobility into stationary wireless. A user will be able to move about in an 802.16e coverage area and remain connected.

Navini, an Intel-funded wireless broadband vendor, is looking to 802.20 to provide both mobility and the ability to roam between base stations.

Along with increasing the chances of selling more 802.16a devices, including support for the 5GHz band opens the possibility of interference between 802.11a and 802.16a devices. There are also some enterprises considering 802.16a as an alternative for the upcoming 802.11e quality of service standard.

Just days after the WiMAX news and 802.16a, came (unofficial) word that the IEEE is working on a new standard dubbed 802.11n, which is expected to increase the throughput (not the marketing data rate) of both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz gear to 108Mbps.

802.11 Planet Conference

Wondering about the latest on last-mile wireless solutions yourself?

Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference
& Expo
, June 25 – 27, 2003 at the World Trade Center Boston in Boston, MA.

Intel speakers will be there and we’ll have a panel addressing
hotspots and backhaul connections to the Internet.

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