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Intel to Unveil Souped-Up Wireless

WiMAX, loosely described as “WiFi on steroids,” is finally ready for its close up.

Intel, the company that brought WiFi into the mainstream by building the technology into its Centrino processors, is about to do the same thing with WiMAX.

This new technology is supposed to allow ubiquitous connectivity—in your home, at the coffee shop, the park or, most importantly, in a moving vehicle, and that’s what distinguishes it from WiFi.

While the typical WiFi access point may have a coverage area of a couple hundred feet and is ideal for a home, a WiMAX antenna can cover up to seven miles, depending on the surrounding buildings and topography. In short, a few antennas can provide broadband wireless service to entire communities.

The first WiMAX/WiFi integrated modules (code named “Echo Peak”) will begin appearing as an option on Centrino notebooks in mid-2008.

Ideally, says Sriram Viswanathan, managing director of Intel Capital and head of Intel’s WiMAX program, consumers will be able to use WiMAX to travel to multiple countries and maintain “seamless connectivity, much like you have today on your cell phone.”

Once you get online, that connectivity will enable audio or video streaming, telecommuting, even phone calls through services like Skype.

But do users really want or need ubiquitous broadband connectivity? According to Viswanathan, before Centrino only hard-core road warriors actually thought of laptops as something they could carry around.

The ability to get online at hot spots in various locations around the world changed that. He believes the same will be true of WiMAX, which makes true broadband speeds possible and enables users to get those speeds while moving in a car or train.

While Intel had a major hand in driving the adoption of WiFi, Viswanathan says it will likely be less influential pushing WiMAX. The reason, he says, is due to the differences between the two technologies.

When users put up wireless routers and access points in their homes, for example, they helped build out the wireless infrastructure. Not so, with WiMAX. The success of the technology is entirely dependent on operators actually building the physical network.

That means the future of the technology is dependent on the likes of Sprint-Nextel and Clearwire, two companies that recently dissolved a partnership to pursue their own initiatives.

Sprint’s problems are well known, and the future of its Xohm network was called into question when its CEO stepped down last fall. But the company pressed on with a soft rollout in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Clearwire recently announced a partnership with Google to collaborate on search and communications tools.

Viswanathan claims Sprint is in a good position because it has “on average, 100MHz of spectrum per market.” Compare that to the 700MHz auction, going on now, which only offers 44MHz of available spectrum to more than 200 bidders.

Even if one company were to buy up the available spectrum (a precious and extremely limited commodity, by the way) Sprint would still have a pipe more than 2x the size of the winner. As a result, Sprint is in a position to use its spectrum to push all manner of content to subscribers. Whether it will actually do it, however, is another story.

While WiMAX presses on, cell phone providers are busy trying to choose the right technology for their next-generation networks. Verizon recently announced it would rely on LTE (Long-Term Evolution) for its 4G network.

But LTE must still undergo a standardization process so all devices will work with one another. That makes it unlikely products will be available to run on the network before 2010. And that, Viswanathan says, gives WiMAX a significant first-mover advantage.

Meanwhile, Intel will continue to push its Centrino platform, “to provide more components, get them to work together and offer value at a platform level vs. an individual CPU level.” WiMAX, Viswanathan adds, is “just one ingredient.”