Wireless Hits WiMax Speeds

Standardized products that are expected to drive down the price of WiMax wireless broadband gear may be as much as a year away, most industry insiders say. But Alvarion used this week's Wireless Communications Association conference in Washington, D.C. to roll out equipment that it says can be easily upgraded to support the emerging standard.

Alvarion already makes its own proprietary wireless broadband infrastructure, which it sells to carriers that want to provide high-speed Internet access over long distances. The BreezeMax product line introduced Wednesday, based on an Alvarion chip, includes wireless base stations that later will be able to serve WiMax CPE (customer premises equipment). All that carriers will need in order to support the new CPE is a firmware upgrade, according to Patrick Leary, assistant vice president of marketing at Alvarion, which is based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Vendors including Alvarion and Intel are counting on high-volume production of WiMax silicon to drive down the price of customer gear and make wireless broadband a profitable carrier service. WiMax is designed to deliver data speeds comparable to cable modem and DSL services over a distance of as much as 30 miles. The WiMax Forum industry group expects to begin certifying WiMax products by the end of this year.

Changing the Channel

The group is working toward specifications for three pieces of radio spectrum, around 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz, and 5 GHz, Leary says. Alvarion's platform introduced Wednesday, the BreezeMax 3500, will use the 3.5-GHz band. Once an Intel chip set that supports WiMax in the 3.5-GHz band is commercially available it will be integrated into new, standardized versions of Alvarion's CPE and its base stations, he says. Leary expects the chip set to ship around the middle of next year. That standardized, high-volume silicon should drive down costs significantly, Leary says.

The BreezeMax 3500 line will include "macro" base stations for dense urban areas and "micro" base stations for rural deployments, along with three kinds of CPE. One CPE device is for IP data only, one supports both data and voice over IP, and one has an integrated 802.11g wireless LAN access point for wireless hotspots or small businesses. For the CPE, Alvarion will charge carriers between $200 and $500 depending on volume, capacity and configuration. The micro base stations will range from $10,000 to $15,000 and the macro versions from $50,000 to $60,000.

Though much attention has been focused on the licensed 2.5-GHz and unlicensed 5-GHz bands, Alvarion is aiming at the initial sweet spot with a 3.5-GHz product, according to Leary. That band has already been licensed for wireless carrier services in many countries outside North America, he says. The 3.5-GHz BreezeMax products have been in trials at carriers in Europe and Asia.

The 3.5-GHz band is "the most stable environment in a regulatory sense, and it's where we believe mass deployment can be achieved most rapidly," Leary says.

Yankee Group analyst Lindsay Schroth agrees. Outside the Western Hemisphere, many major carriers already hold spectrum in that range, she says. By contrast, WiMax deployment in the 2.5-GHz range probably will have to wait for decisions by two big U.S. carriers, Sprint and Nextel Communications, Schroth says. Unlicensed 5-GHz services probably will remain the realm of enterprises and small rural providers, she adds.

"The U.S. market in general is kind of up in the air in terms of how quickly people will deploy stuff," Schroth says.

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