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Moto: Mobile WiMax Is In

The push to develop a mobile WiMax standard may put pressure on several companies that already have big bets in the fixed WiMax space.

Carriers have already issued 25 RFPs (requests for proposal) asking about mobile WiMax, and the applications being discussed include lots of the same thing that proponents of fixed WiMax promised early on.

Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), in fact, is shaking up the nascent market by skipping fixed WiMax entirely in favor of focusing on the mobile version, 802.16e-2005. In addition to supporting roaming among base stations, it also can support fixed deployments and has a wider range than the initial fixed version, 802.16d-2004. While 802.16e isn't expected to take off before next year, there is demand for it among emerging markets without much existing telecom infrastructure, if requests for proposal are any indication.

"We're responding to about 25 RFPs," says Raghu Rau, senior vice president of global marketing and strategy for networks at Motorola. "Some are nationwide. You get a lower cost per bit than you do with traditional cellular, and that's why it's popular in emerging markets."

Motorola plans to ship mobile WiMax base stations by the end of the year. Motorola recently announced a mobile WiMax partnership with Wateen Telecom in Pakistan, and officials say similar deals are on the way. (See Motorola Makes WiMax Breakthrough .) Rau says the company even has talked to potential customers about migrating from GSM networks to mobile WiMax.

"Motorola is putting a lot of energy behind WiFi, wireless mesh, and WiMax as part of its WI4 strategy," says Patrick Donegan, senior analyst for wireless at Heavy Reading. "I’d expect it to be one of the leaders in deploying WiMax mobility systems in the future."

On the other hand, some analysts wonder about the long-term prospects of WiMax deployments, noting that so far most have targeted either rural or emerging markets.

"It gets deployed in remote areas where there may not be enough people to pay for the service on an ongoing basis," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc. "We still have many grave concerns over the economic model."

"It will compete with both cellular data offerings and metro-scale WiFi," adds Craig Mathias, principal analyst at the Farpoint Group . "If, as I expect, cellular and WiFi converge, mobile WiMax will have a really tough time getting established."

But officials at fellow networking player Nortel Networks Ltd. say there say they also are seeing demand from a new generation of service providers that don't yet have wireless offerings -- not just in developing and rural markets, but among non-traditional operators in the U.S. Cable operators are one example. Nortel also plans to release a mobile WiMax base station by the end of the year.

"We're talking to three companies that say they want to do nationwide rollouts in the U.S., and only one of them is a traditional wireless or wireline carrier," says Mark Whitton, vice president and general manager of WiMax at Nortel. "The kinds of companies interested in WiMax are new operators that want new business models -- companies that want to take new media assets to market."

The support for mobile WiMax puts some pressure on players such as Alvarion Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: ALVR), an early player in fixed WiMax equipment and precursor technologies. (See Intel's WiMax AntiClimax.)

"Had 2005 come first there never would have been a 2004," Gartner's Dulaney says. "The mobile version… will supply fixed."

Alvarion acknowledges the pressure.

"Mobile can do fixed, whereas fixed can't do mobile," says Carlton O'Neal, vice president of marketing at Alvarion, which makes base stations for WiMax. "I don't think anyone has ever denied that the mobile market is bigger than the fixed market. Alvarion's leading the market with d, but some guys don't care because they're jumping right on e."

To that end, Alvarion has readied its own 802.16e base stations, called 4 Motion, which it plans to release in 2007.

In the meantime, Alvarion at Globalcomm last week introduced a fixed WiMax router, dubbed the BreezeMax Si, that customers can install themselves in their own homes. (It comes in several colors, so as to match living room decors.) Previous iterations have required a carrier to send a technician to install a box on the outside of a customer's house, and the new version saves a truck roll.

"Self install has always been seen as a prerequisite for mass deployment," O'Neal says.

While it is too soon to tell whether the self-install equipment will spur fixed WiMax deployments among carriers, Alvarion is seeing some demand for fixed WiMax as a backhaul technology for city-wide WiFi networks. To wit, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s Mountain View, Calif., WiFi network, which uses WiFi mesh access points from Tropos, uses Alvarion WiMax base stations for the backhaul. "WiMax's backhaul for municipals is really a great thing," O'Neal says.

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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