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intel in the field

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    Intel Pursues 'Last Mile' Wireless Broadband Technology
    Thu Aug 14, 2:33 PM ET
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    Jay Wrolstad,

    The need for speed has never been greater, with demand for broadband Internet access growing by leaps and bounds worldwide. While wireline connections have failed to deliver the higher bandwidth required for integrated data and voice services, broadband wireless (news - web sites) represents an attractive alternative for "last mile" connections.

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    Among those taking a closer look at broadband wireless is chip-making giant Intel (Nasdaq: INTC - news), which recently announced plans to develop a silicon product based on the nascent IEEE 802.16a metropolitan area network (MAN) standard.

    As a point-to-multipoint technology, 802.16a promises both extended range and much faster connections than existing wireless local area networks (LANs) and could become a replacement for existing "last mile" choices, such as cable modem (news - web sites) and digital subscriber lines (DSL).

    Blazing Speed, Extended Range

    Intel expects that networks based on the 802.16a standard will have a range of up to 30 miles and the ability to transfer data, voice and multimedia at speeds of up to 70 Mbps, which compares favorably with high-speed fiber optic networks.

    The 802.16a technology is also known as WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), which is the name of the industry forum established to support the standard and certify products based on it -- similar to the Wi-Fi Alliance for the 802.11b standard.

    According to Intel spokesperson Daniel Francisco, the company will create a chip to connect wireless broadband access points and, through such connections, extend the network footprint while delivering voice or data at "screaming fast speed."

    "Our vision is broadband everywhere," Francisco told NewsFactor. "Communication and computing are converging, and our ultimate goal is to have a radio built-in to every piece of silicon produced." Intel's chipsets for WiMax gear will complement existing Intel wireless building blocks, including the Centrino Wi-Fi chipset, PRO/Wireless network connections and network processors for wireless infrastructure.

    Cost and Effect

    If 802.16a is to reach the level of acceptance of Wi-Fi, though, the availability of this new standard is crucial, since the cost of equipment is the critical factor.

    "Broadband wireless is expensive, and the base of users thus far is small. To do it efficiently, it would have to be a lot more popular," said IDC analyst Keith Waryas. The advantage of WiMax, when it gets off the ground, is that it can drive down the cost of providing backhaul, he told NewsFactor.

    "You don't need a cable if you can do this over the air, which means a lower cost to provision and maintain the system," said Waryas, Thus, WiMax could be attractive to enterprises, particularly in such areas as developing countries and rural regions where cable modem and DSL services are not available.

    Fierce Competition

    Yankee Group analyst Lindsay Schroth offers a similar take, telling NewsFactor that the biggest hurdle for 802.16a is the cost of equipment and competition from cable and DSL service providers that have a considerable head start in the "last mile" market.

    "Intel is addressing those concerns by working with other vendors, as they did with Wi-Fi, and the company recognizes a greater opportunity in the enterprise (news - web sites) market than in the mass consumer space," she said. "They can't compete yet with cable and DSL."

    Francisco acknowledges that the technology is new, and said the first phase of WiMax equipment should be available by the end of next year, although Waryas and other analysts suggest that may be overly optimistic.

    Complex Solution

    The 802.16 standard is considerably complex, using a broad range of spectrum for a broad array of voice and data applications, said Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin, who explained that service providers who deploy the technology will have to choose among the subsets of performance features for specific applications -- such as fixed wireless for consumers or a data-centric network for businesses.

    "This technology is relatively late to the fixed wireless broadband market, and it will be at least 18 months before the equipment is available in quantity," Golvin told NewsFactor.

    But Intel is confident that WiMax will eventually benefit from economies of scale and interoperability that will address the demand for broadband connectivity. Without the 802.16a standard, the theory goes, equipment vendors have to produce the basic silicon, the customer premise equipment, the base stations and the network-management software. With the standard, manufacturers can focus on their respective areas of expertise.

    Other possible hurdles, said Waryas, include interference in the unlicensed spectrum bands used with WiMax and resistance among ISPs that have invested millions in existing broadband technologies and may balk at going in a different direction.
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