CHICAGO, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- The latest wireless mobile computing technology, called WiMax, is gaining momentum at a rapid clip.
WiMax will help bridge the gap between wireless fidelity and wireless telecom networks, giving mobile computer users free, or cheap, wireless access across many miles of terrain, not just inside the office or at a WiFi hot spot, such as a Starbucks or a Kinko's store.
Major companies, including Lucent Technologies, Nortel, Cisco and Huawei Technologies, are moving forward with projects in the WiMax market -- known formally as Metropolitan Broadband Fixed, Portable and Mobile Applications -- and new commercial products may be available as soon as this summer, experts told UPI's Wireless World.
"There is going to be a convergence of WiFi and WiMax," said Dave Sorrells, chief technology officer at ParkerVision, a technology company in Jacksonville, Fla. "There are a number of companies out there thinking about this."
Research underway at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering suggests WiMax may be one of the hottest technology trends of 2005.
"There is a lot of noise pertaining to its potential, due to the few lab trials that have occurred," said Brian O'Connor, a principal consultant with PA Consulting in New York City.
WiMax is considered an answer to a problem that has pestered the wireless industry for years: the limited availability of licensed spectrum.
Mobile phone companies such as Verizon and other carriers must utilize licensed frequencies allocated by the Federal Communications Commission. Computer users, meanwhile, have gravitated to free -- or nearly free -- WiFi networks for the past year or so, hoping to reduce their telecom expenses when sending messages or surfing the Web while they are mobile.
WiMax also can help customers roam from one wireless network to another, which could become a key factor in rolling out so-called Third Generation or 3G wireless networks across the United States and even in Europe.
One of the primary problems with WiMax, however, is the lack of a signal-quality guarantee. There also are security concerns -- fears that hackers can access the free networks and wreak havoc on mobile phone calling.
"The telecom and ISP (Internet Service Provider) industries are converging," said Todd Myers, chief executive officer of Airpath Wireless in Waltham, Mass.
According to the WiMax Forum, an industry group that is setting standards for the emerging technology, WiMax has a wide range. For non-line-of-sight applications, this kind of wireless computing can reach 4 or 5 miles. For line-of-sight applications, the range can be even greater, up to 10 or 15 miles.
"Our main goal is developing or promoting the WiMax standard," said Mohammed Shakouri, a board member of the WiMax Forum in San Jose, Calif. "We have looked at the applications and have defined a specific market and application for vendors to develop products."
The industry just agreed on the WiMax standard about a year ago, Shakouri said.
"We expect that the first wave of equipment will be available in July of this year," he told Wireless World. "The vendors are starting to get the technology in hand. We believe the market today is half-a-billion dollars."
The WiMax standard will work on the 3.5 gigahertz portion of the wireless spectrum, but also will work on the 5.8 gigahertz area. The emerging standards will promote applications such as increasing the connectivity of businesses, homes, cellular phone base stations and WiFi hot-spots.
"This will not only be big in the United States," Shakouri said, "this will be big in developed countries, which have no wired infrastructure. It will also be big in rural parts of Europe, where there is a mandate to get broadband to everyone."
According to research by Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, the technology also has the potential to "impact" on broadband deployment in the United States in rural areas, small towns and suburbs. Companies, not consumers, are the likely buyers of this technology. They will create the applications that consumers will use.
Some analysts, however, are skeptical about the technology's potential.
"Calling WiMax an evolution or version of WiFi is incorrect," said Derek Kerton, an analyst with the Kerton Group, a research firm in Silicon Valley. "There is no technical overlap, or synergy whatsoever. It is a marketing and branding play that Intel has sunk of lot of money into -- over $200 million."
Others are less concerned about the marketing monies spent, and think there will be consumer benefits.
"Users don't want to think about it," Sorrells said. "They want the highest-speed connection anytime."
Sorrells said his company is developing WiMax technology, but right now it is in the prototype stage, like a lot of others interested in this new niche.
"We have the technology in bits and pieces on a circuit board," he Sorrells. "We have prototypes and proofs of concept today. It's good to walk in with customers and have a working piece of hardware. The results are not questionable. The customers tell us how we did."
Though the WiMax Forum notes technologies will be turned into commercial products, hopefully starting this summer, O'Connor predicted widespread commercial availability of WiMax will not be the norm until late 2006, "at the earliest."
Other technologies, in the meantime, may compete emerge and compete against WiMax, he concluded.
Wireless World is a weekly column examining telecommunications trends by Gene J. Koprowski a 2004 Winner of a Lilly Foundation Award for journalism for UPI. E-mail: email@example.com
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