WiMax: Ready for Closeup

It may not be quite ready for prime time yet, but WiMax is moving beyond certification issues and one-off product releases to become an end-to-end, "carrier grade" solution, according to equipment suppliers here at CTIA Wireless.

SOMA Networks Inc. yesterday unveiled its "FlexMAX Wireless Platform," based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 802.16e standard, which the company claims is the industry's "first fully converged, all-IP multimedia system" for carriers.

At the same time, Aperto Networks Inc. says it will partner with telecom veteran ADC (Nasdaq: ADCT) to provide the "Digivance WMX" family of products, a complete line of WiMax products that includes the enterprise-level PacketMAX 300, an outdoor/indoor subscriber unit that will support a diverse range of IP networking technologies and up to 250 hosts.

These new systems, says Manish Gupta, Aperto's vice president for marketing alliances, represent an emerging "WiMax ecosystem" comprising chipmakers, software providers and service providers, all driven by common standards that will drive prices down and hasten deployment of broadband wireless networks. "It's a fundamental change in the business," asserts Gupta.

"There's been a lot of hype" around WiMax, admits SOMA president Greg Caltabiano, "but now it's really happening."

The SOMA technology is based on building as few base stations as possible, each covering a range of as little as three miles in densely populated urban settings and up to 10 miles in more optimum conditions. Caltabiano believes that the new "mobile WiMax" standard, 802.16e, will be the most appropriate basis on which to build both fixed and mobile networks in the future, and that the development of comprehensive, plug-and-play networks will drive carrier offerings and customer adoption over the next 24 months.

"The customer doesn't want to buy a technology, or a standard," he says. "WiMax itself is not creating value. They want to buy a solution."

SOMA is targeting service providers who have little or no local access, both in the developing world (with national carriers such as Jaring, in Malaysia), and, in the U.S., with regional independent operators seeking to expand their footprint and appeal to enterprise customers. The FlexMAX suite of products encompasses portable devices, subscriber gateways, middleware, integrated applications and professional services.

"Until now, the industry has focused on the components of a system," says Adlane Fellah, senior analyst at Maravedis, in a statement, "but carriers want profitable, turnkey equipment solutions."

Aperto says its portfolio of products includes the world's first carrier-grade, WiMax Forum-certified base station. Acting as an OEM for ADC, Aperto will offer carriers a wide range of products that it says will hasten the movement toward full WiMax interoperability. Ultimately, interoperability and quality of service -- not promises of ultra-high-bandwidth at 70 mph -- will form the bottom line for WiMax deployments, says Todd Schieffert, head of strategic marketing for ADC.

"That's all the customer really cares about," adds Schieffert. "They'll say, 'Here's my wireline service-level agreement, can give you give it to me at X cost?'"

The WiMax industry, says Gupta, has gone from its fragmented beginnings to more substantial deployments: "The market is crystallizing around common standards and comprehensive solutions are being defined."

Crystallizing or not, that market remains relatively small: Infonetics estimates that worldwide revenue climbed to $142.3 million last year (from virtually zero at the start of 2004), and will reach $1.6 billion in 2009.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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