Intel's WiMax AntiClimax

The network equipment used by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) in its live demonstration of WiMax metropolitan area technology at the Interop 2005 show wasn't WiMax. In fact, the "pre-WiMax" infrastructure products used for the demonstration actually contain 5GHz 802.11 radio chips from Atheros Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: ATHR), Unstrung has learnt.

Intel used MPower Communications's broadband wireless network for its Vegas demo. This network uses Alvarion Ltd.'s (Nasdaq: ALVR) pre-WiMax BreezeACCESS VL boxes to provide wireless connectivity.

Intel confirms that it "leveraged MPower's network" for the demonstration. "The products that were used were actually from Alvarion," a company spokeswoman says.

"The whole network was pre-WiMax, it wasn't actually using the Intel [WiMax] chip," the spokeswoman says. "It was a pre-WiMax demonstration of what WiMax can do."

A spokeswoman for Alvarion confirmed that the BreezeACCESS VL boxes were used "for Vegas and Speakeasy's [launch in Seattle] as well." (See Speakeasy Maxes in Seattle.)

But the VL box's radio chips run 5GHz 802.11. That standard -- like WiMax -- utilizes Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) modulation, which is what also makes the technology suitable for pre-WiMax applications.

"OFDM is the cornerstone of WiMax," says Carlton O'Neal, VP of marketing at Alvarion. He says that the VL product will have a lot in common with actual WiMax products when they hit the market.

OFDM, as you'll no doubt remember, works by splitting the radio signal into a bunch of smaller signals that are simultaneously sent at different frequencies to the receiver. Which, in layman's terms, makes for a faster wireless connection.

Alvarion says its product also has a proprietary ASIC on board that deals with media access control (MAC) layer functions.

"The [radio] processor happens to be 802.11," Alvarion's spokeswoman confirms. The firm used "off the shelf" WiFi chips as the radio to get the box to market more quickly, according to O'Neal.

O'Neal claims to have coined the term "pre-WiMax" and he defines it like this: "It's an OFDM product, but it will never be taken to the lab for certification."

"Pre-WiMax really lends itself to a whole set of wireless broadband products," the Alvarion spokeswoman explains.

Indeed, Alvarion president Amir Rosenzweig put it this way in a statement: "BreezeACCESS VL is now the product of choice for U.S. operators wanting to demonstrate and understand the benefits of WiMax capacity and services in anticipation of certified WiMax systems and spectrum being allocated."

Alvarion plans to introduce a 5GHz BreezeMAX product for the U.S market, O'Neal says. The company already has a "WiMax-Ready" 3.5GHz box for markets outside the U.S. "Guys like Speakeasy will just swop the radios out," he says.

Analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts Co. takes a jaundiced view of the entire concept of "pre-WiMax" but does note that it isn't only Alvarion and Intel playing the marketing game.

"Everybody is saying that," he sighs. "I can name you five companies that claim to have a 'pre-WiMax' product, which means they use OFDM modulation. Whether they conform to the 802.16a [wireless metropolitan area network] specification is another question. I don't know that there is even a central authority checking." And, of course, 802.16a isn't actually the specification that WiMax is based on. Fixed-wireless WiMax is based on the later 802.16d specification, while mobile WiMax is based on the 802.16e specification.

Which all begs the question: Does "pre-WiMax" really mean anything anyway?

Alvarion's O'Neal agrees that the terminology can get a bit loose sometimes, but he looks to the bigger picture outside the world of broadband wireless.

"It puts us in a bit of a spin sometimes. But you have to look up a notch," he says. "To a vendor like Intel... it doesn't really matter."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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