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Skeptics be damned. WiMAX supporters shoot for the stars

SAN JOSE, Calif.-The potential for mobile WiMAX is as big as the Internet itself, if you trust the true believers gathered last week in San Jose, Calif., for the Wireless Communications Alliance International’s 13th annual symposium.
Mobile WiMAX technology will create a new category of users, ushering in the personal mobile Internet, according to Anand Chandrasekher, Intel Corp.’s senior VP and general manager of the Ultra Mobility Group.
The talk is bold, fearless even, despite the skeptics who question whether mobile WiMAX will even work, let alone work four times faster than 3G cellular at one-tenth of the cost.
The vision: Access to the Internet from a variety of devices that personalize your information. “It’s all about the individual,” Chandrasekher said.
Yes, computers and PC cards will be able to access the Web. But the game-changers are the “others” category: Playstation portables, MP3 players, portable DVD players, camcorders and digital cameras, said Philip Solis, senior analyst of mobile wireless at ABI Research.
Even the automobile can be thought of as a device, noted Atish Gude, Sprint Nextel Corp.’s senior VP of mobile broadband operations. Sound strange? Daimler-Chrysler recently joined the WCA, commented WCA President Andrew Kreig.

Hopes riding on Sprint Nextel, Clearwire
All eyes are on Sprint Nextel. “If they implement this right, they can easily be the No. 1 carrier in five years,” Solis said.
The U.S., with Sprint Nextel and Craig McCaw’s Clearwire Corp. both committing to the mobile WiMAX standard, is the tipping point for the protocol, Chandrasekher said.
But Sprint Nextel will have a number of challenges in deploying its network, including the speed at which the carrier can ramp up, said Solis. The carrier is hoping to rollout some markets in late 2007. Sprint Nextel and Clearwire should enable roaming on each other’s networks to help bring the services to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, he noted.
Indeed, carriers worldwide will need to ink roaming agreements in order to gain economies of scale from the consumer electronics manufacturers-even if few people need to roam on these nontraditional Internet access devices, Solis said. Chipsets should contain the various spectrum bands for different countries or device manufacturers may find the market too fragmented.
Sprint Nextel details
Sprint Nextel also divulged a few more details of its 2.5 GHz spectrum strategy. While multimode devices will enable people to use the digital cellular network and the WiMAX network, Sprint Nextel views its 2.5 GHz spectrum as third-generation Internet, rather than fourth-generation wireless. “It’s an Internet technology, not a cellular technology,” Gude said. “It’s taking the Internet and releasing it from the wire.”
Gude also touched on Sprint Nextel’s plans to price the service: a person or family will be able to buy a subscription that extends to multiple devices and the consumer can change those devices as they want. (For example, if the PSP breaks, you take that device off the subscription and add the portable DVD player.)
The carrier is still wrestling with whether to use a walled-garden approach initially on some devices. For example, a gaming device doesn’t come with a keyboard. Should it have full Internet access or something simpler, Gude postured.
Supporting cast
But for the vision to approach reality, networks need to be built, devices need to be produced with embedded WiMAX chips and “higher-order” applications must be developed.
Intel (which largely missed out on the cellphone phenomenon) is betting heavily on mobile WiMAX and its bravado matches that bet. “We’ll do for WiMAX what we did for Wi-Fi with Centrino,” Chandrasekher boasted.
In 2002, no one believed that people would buy notebook computers. But Intel, with its Centrino chip, spurred development and uptake in the notebook category, Chandrasekher said. For the last two years, the notebook PC has been the fastest-growing segment of consumer electronics devices worldwide. (Note he did not say the largest seller). Internet growth is outstripping cellphone growth.
Even so, WiMAX carriers will be challenged to take existing customers from traditional wireless operators that already have a relationship with those subscribers, said Jake MacLeod, principal VP and CTO at Bechtel Communications Inc. “Whoever owns the customer wins.” Nevertheless, mobile WiMAX will likely gain a significant (20 percent or so) portion of the worldwide market in 10 years, MacLeod predicted.
Competing 4G technologies-3G LTE (based on UMTS), UMB (based on CDMA2000 Revision C) and WiMAX-all use OFDM and MIMO and are all-IP networks, noted Mike Seymour of Alcatel Lucent Inc. Each carrier will have to decide which technology best meets its needs.
Technology battles aside, the voice of reason was apparent despite the hyperbole. Sprint Nextel’s Gude joked that when the carrier acquired the 2.5 GHz spectrum, it inherited four failed business models.
But perhaps Alvarion’s Mohammad Shakouri said it best: “What is key is knowing how to make money.”

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