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A Conflicted MAN?

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The WiMax Forum is supposed to do for the 802.16a wireless metropolitan area networking (MAN) specification what the Wi-Fi Alliance did for 802.11 wireless LAN networking: Push interoperability between different vendor's hardware and establish a brand for the technology (see Working for the MAN).

However, there could be one major issue that stands in the way of these ambitions, according to wireless broadband infrastructure manufacturer Alvarion Inc. (Nasdaq: ALVR), the 802.16a specification -- as it stands -- is "impossible to implement." [Ed. note: Well smack my arse and call me Charlie!]

So what's the issue? Alvarion's VP of marketing, Carlton O'Neal, says the job of the WiMax Forum is to "go through the 802.16 specification and tease out the interoperable systems." However, there are a lot of variables in the spec as it stands. The fixed, non-line-of-sight wireless technology can operate in the 2GHz to 11GHz bands. The data-transfer speed available to the end user depends on how much bandwidth is available. For instance, a system that operates at an efficiency of five bits per channel in a 14MHz channel will deliver 70-Mbit/s data streams at a range of up to 30 miles.

All this could -- O'Neal says -- result in two or three incompatible WiMax specifications. "WiMax could tell you this is WiMax blue, or WiMax green, or this is WiMax green," he says.

Contrast this with the Wi-Fi Alliance, which initially set out to promote the 802.11b (11 Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) standard under the 'Wireless Fidelity' brand [ed. note: yucky brand name, but that's another story] not three or four different standards. Even the Wi-Fi Alliance found it difficult to maintain the original promise of interoperability, as hardware vendors rushed in to deliver versions of 802.11g cards and access points before the specification was standardized this summer (see Interop Woes Smite 802.11g).

And O'Neal agrees that there's a "real risk" that different versions of WiMax specifications could confuse potential customers.

However, Alvarion is hoping that the involvement of chip behemoth Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) will force vendors to settle on one spec. "[Intel is] not going to build [chips for] three different specifications," says O'Neal. "They're going to build one."

Of course, Alvarion itself is working with Intel to develop products based on its WiMax/802.16a chips. O'Neal expects that the first chips will ship in the second quarter of next year, with infrastructure boxes arriving in the second half of 2004 (see Intel Gets Into Fixed Wireless).

However, like the battle to be the first with pre-standardized versions of 802.11g, its clear that Intel and Alvarion are not going to be only firms trying to get a competitive edge in this field. Startup Redline Communications Inc. is already claiming to have 802.16a-complaint infrastructure products. The Canadian firm demonstrated its AN-100 box at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) show in Geneva this year. — Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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