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Like 3G, another wireless technology that was once beloved in China,At one time, WiMax, like 3G before it, was the darling of the Chinese wireless community, has begun to look overhyped. Twith claims that the broadband wireless internet service could help leapfrog China leapfrog its old and inadequate phone infrastructure straight into the super-fast information age. But the government and operators have not yet concluded where WiMax will fit in the nation’s telecom strategy.

Some analysts suggest that rather than becoming a core technology it is likely to assume more of a niche role, helping to bring fast wireless internet services to corporate campuses or geographies where laying fixed lines would be difficult or expensive.

“When you talk to engineers, they end up saying WiMax will rule the world,” says Duncan Clark, managing director of telecom consultancy BDA China. “But you also have to bring in the politics, investment, marketing and strategy layers and figure out what consumers are willing to do.”

China is likely to lag behind other nations in Asia and Europe in implementing WiMax, which broadcasts broadband wireless web service over distances of three to 10km. Support from the government, always a key factor in technology debuts, has so far been lacklustre. Beijing remains preoccupied by issuing licenses for 3G, an advanced wireless standard that could potentially compete with WiMax.

The powerful Ministry of Information Industry is “heavily invested in 3G,” says Frank Zheng, chairman and chief executive of China Mobile Communications ResearchInc., which conducts research in wireless networking. For now, the government is not inclined to promote an alternative technology such as WiMax.

In May, the Singaporean government auctioned off wireless broadband spectrum rights to six bidders, but Chinese authorities are still debating which radio frequency to allocate for WiMax-related technology.

Meanwhile, China’s telecom providers have not said how they would charge for WiMax services, particularly if it were used to offer internet-based voice calls. They remain reluctant to discuss their WiMax strategy or to detail ongoing trials. (Technically, all trials so far are considered to be pre-Wimax, since existing WiMax equipment hasn’t yet been certified to meet the industry standard).

Even tireless WiMax promoter Intel is keeping silentabout its trials in the cities of Dalian and Chengdu.

Yet some operators have been dabbling in broadband wireless access trials around the country for years. As long ago as 1996, Hebei Unicom, a division of China Unicom based in the province surrounding Beijing, started offering broadband wireless access to businesses and homes in the city of Chengde.

The service, using gear from Alvarion, expanded to 10 area cities. The need for new telecom technology is obvious: Hebei’s 68m people have only 8.5m phones (including both fixed and mobile) for a population of 68m.

Other broadband wireless trials have mostly taken place in or near urban areas where demand for broadband is greatest. While optimists suggest WiMax could help propel China’s rural schools and hospitals into the internet era, it is likely to be promoted first in central business districts or on government campuses.

The advantage of WiMax is that it offers speedy data feeds of around 70 megabits per second compared to speeds of only about 2 to 4 megabits per second for 3G, says James Jiang, president of ZiMax, ZTE’s WiMax subsidiary.

In theory, WiMax could siphon off business from 3G. But many industry observers seem doubtful, saying the two are likely to serve different markets. 3G is better equipped to serve densely-populated areas, offers superior voice service and allows users to roam. The current, fixed version of WiMax doesn’t allow mobile Internet access. Also, WiMax isn’t optimised for voice, though it can be used to support voice over IP calls. Technology advances could overtake the issue. ZTE is developing technology to support both WiMax and 3G in computers and PDAs, according to Mr Jiang, though he says dual-mode devices probably would not be available for another few years.

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