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August 9, 2006 6:24 pm

Watch out Wi-Fi, WiMAX just rode in

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Big money is suddenly being bet by wireless operators on a little known technology called WiMAX.

Sprint Nextel is to spend $1bn this year and $1.5bn to $2bn in 2008 on building a mobile broadband “4G” (fourth generation) network across the US based on WiMAX (worldwide interoperability for microwave access).

Last month, Clearwire broke the record for a US venture capital investment when it received $900m for WiMAX deployment.

Mobile broadband also represents a high-stakes battle between Intel, the world’s biggest chipmaker, and Qualcomm, the semiconductor company which earns substantial royalties for its patents in 3G technologies such as W-CDMA.

Intel Capital provided $600m of the $900m investment in Clearwire, the largest investment in its venture capital arm’s history.

It wants WiMAX to become the same kind of worldwide standard as Wi-Fi – the wireless technology that has powered the success of its Centrino chips in notebook PCs.

“Intel wants to put WiMAX chips into laptops and it’s only worth it if they have a network to connect to; that’s where Clearwire comes in,” says Alan Menezes, head of marketing at Wavion, a company whose technology helps Wi-Fi coverage to be extended across metropolitan areas.

“Intel really wants to kick-start this,” says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance industry body.

“The size of the investment gives you a sense of how capital intensive this is. There’s a whole network and ecosystem that has to be in place; the cellular industry has taken 20 years to develop that infrastructure.”

The challenges for Intel are on a different scale from Wi-Fi, which has used unlicensed spectrum and did not need adoption by carriers and the building of national networks.

WiMAX is Wi-Fi’s missing link. While cities such as San Francisco are building metropolitan Wi-Fi networks, the technology still does not provide the coverage and mobility of cellular phone networks.

WiMAX promises ranges of up to 30 miles and data transfer rates of up to 70 megabits per second – far higher bandwidth than 3G, where speeds average around 1 megabit.

Sprint Nextel has the licences to deploy it: 2.5GHz spectrum holdings that cover 85 per cent of households in the top 100 US markets, more than any wireless carrier in any single spectrum band.

However, its rush towards 4G is not being mirrored by other US carriers, who want to get the value out of their expensive 3G infrastructure.

Qualcomm may also find more success playing this longer game as it appears to have been outmanoeuvred by Intel on WiMAX.

Qualcomm has been pushing a standard for 4G known as 802.20, based on technology known as orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA). WiMAX is also based on OFDMA and its mobile version, 802.16e, has won approval from the standards board of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

However, Qualcomm has accused Intel of getting 802.20 blocked by persuading the IEEE to suspend the activities of a working group on the standard.

Qualcomm’s technology was rejected by Sprint Nextel in favour of Intel’s, but it might expect support from a mobile industry that has come to rely on its CDMA (code division multiple access) standard in second and third-generation phones.

Yet it also faces resentment over royalties it charges that are perceived to be too high.

“There is a slight undercurrent in the cellular industry of anti-Qualcomm feeling,” says Jagdish Rebello, principal analyst at the iSuppli research firm. “They don’t want one player controlling that [4G] market, so there’s a push for an open standard and it’s going to be a very big battle between Qualcomm and Intel.”

Aditya Kaul, senior analyst at Juniper Research, says it is a battle that could be won by Intel in the developing world. “Operators there are looking at leapfrogging; it’s a different value proposition in the developing world that will make it more successful there,” he says.

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