Some proponents of WiMax wireless broadband technology see it as the next Wi-Fi, with a high volume of chipsets cutting prices. But one equipment vendor says it can already ride that wave, delivering relatively low-cost gear with WiMax-like functionality using current chips built for Wi-Fi.
WiMax backer Intel also keeps fighting the cost battle, announcing this week that it has teamed up with wireless infrastructure maker Proxim to develop base stations and subscriber gear for WiMax as well as a base station reference design that other system vendors can use.
The low-cost challenge to WiMax, a technology that can deliver megabits per second of data and voice over several miles, will come at the Supercomm show in Chicago from Sky Pilot Network. The Belmont, California, company aims to deliver long range and service quality similar to WiMax by implementing additional technologies on top of an IEEE 802.11a chipset.
Though not interoperable with standard Wi-Fi equipment, Sky Pilot's technology will benefit from the economies of scale that have driven the price of that gear, says Linda Kalcic, vice president of marketing at Sky Pilot.
"We're able to bring the economies of scale to the market today, whereas that's two to three years down the road when it comes to WiMax," Kalcic says. Sky Pilot's equipment will ship in volume in August, with subscriber units for indoors and outdoors each priced at $349. As with any equipment for service provider customers, carriers could subsidize that cost for end users.
The WiMax Forum plans to begin certifying products by the end of this year. Intel, which will make chips for WiMax gear, predicts outdoor subscriber units will cost between $300 and $500 starting early next year. By late next year, indoor units will be available for about $200, and in 2006 there will be add-in cards for notebook PCs priced under $100. But price cuts will depend partly on how quickly WiMax gear sells, and some analysts and vendors see less steep declines.
Sky Pilot lets enterprises and service providers extend the less than 100-foot standard range of 802.11a up to between 2 miles and 20 miles depending on configuration. The SkyGateway base station can be used in line of sight, non-line of sight, or mesh configurations depending on a carrier's or enterprise's needs.
The SkyGateway has multiple directional antennas, each of which focuses the transmission power of the base station in one direction. By switching among those antennas in brief time slots, the SkyGateway can provide 360-degree coverage, says Paul Gordon, vice president of engineering at Sky Pilot. SkyGateways can also be used in a mesh, along with devices called SkyExtenders, to get around obstacles and reach beyond the range of a single SkyGateway without a wired backhaul, he says.
End users can't hook up to a Sky Pilot network with a standard Wi-Fi client, but based on customer feedback, Sky Pilot may make its gear interoperate with Wi-Fi in the future, Kalcic says. In addition, the company plans to roll out WiMax gear in the future as a separate product line.
In addition, the company says it has architected the system to support voice calls. A Sky Pilot network can deliver the necessary low-traffic latency using a system that schedules transmissions, Gordon says.
The SkyGateway will cost $2499 and the SkyExtender will be priced at $499. SkyProvision and optional SkyControl software, for service provisioning and management, will cost $499 and $2499, respectively, both per 1000 users.
Intel and Proxim aim to get WiMax products to market quickly and free up vendors to develop their own innovative software features, according to Joe English, director of marketing for WiMax at Intel. They will cooperate to develop both first-generation fixed WiMax gear and future mobile WiMax equipment based on the emerging IEEE 802.16e specification.
The product architectures that the two companies develop will be used in Proxim products and also licensed as reference designs to other equipment vendors, says Jeff Orr, product marketing director for Proxim.
"The advantage from a vendor perspective is that we can work with the experts at Intel in terms of developing the silicon," Orr says. That will let Proxim put more resources into developing special capabilities and software of its own.
Proxim isn't worried about extending the benefits of the partnership to other vendors, Orr says. Making reference designs available to other vendors should help expand the WiMax market, which may encompass equipment makers that serve different kinds of customers in different parts of the world, he says.
"We don't see any one product that's going to be able to solve all of those [requirements] at a given point in time," Orr says.