WiMax Switching Ahoy?

With wireless LAN switch startup Airespace Inc. joining the WiMax Forum, are we about to see a new breed of wireless metropolitan area switches on the market?

Maybe. But don't hold your breath. Products bearing the WiMax brand are not expected to hit the market until 2005.

Proponents of the high-speed fixed wireless technology -- based on the 802.16a revision d specification -- are touting it as an alternative to cable/DSL networks or a replacement to WiFi hotspot networks. In the corporate world, the initial applications are likely to be wirelessly bridging larger distances between buildings on a campus, or providing coverage in large, open spaces (e.g., warehouses).

A later version of the 802.16a specification -- revision e -- is intended to facilitate mobile applications by improving handoff times between base stations.

Airespace has been the most vocal of the wireless LAN switch startups about its prospects in the WiMAx market. CEO Brett Galloway said at the recent Light Reading Live investor conference that the high-speed wireless MAN technology represents a "significant opportunity" for Airespace.

Access point, switch, and wireless LAN bridge vendor Proxim Corp. (Nasdaq: PROX) is also a long-standing member of the Forum.

But although Airespace rival Aruba Wireless Networks is currently describing the technology as "interesting," it reckons it will be a while before the technology gets used in the enterprise space.

Keerti Melkote, Aruba's VP of product marketing, says the WiMax market is in its "pre-infancy," noting that products are still "a long way off." In fact, the first WiMax chipsets are expected before the end of this year, but its still anyone's guess when equipment using the silicon will be available in volume.

The key for enterprise adoption, reckons Melkote, is the wide availability of WiMax NIC cards for laptops. Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) is likely to play a large role in making such technology available, just as it has with its wireless LAN Centrino chipset and marketing dollars.

When WiMax does become ready for primetime, it will certainly be possible to apply security and management technology from centralized wireless LAN architectures to the new networks, says Melkote.

"In the end, its just another wireless transport mechanism," he sighs.

Melkote's wait-and-see approach to WiMax is echoed by switch contender Trapeze Networks Inc., which says its technology is also applicable to 802.16a.

"Trapeze believes that WiMax provides a viable technology platform for future wireless topologies and supports the efforts of the WiMax Forum," says VP of business development, Ahmet Tuncay. "While it's too early to discuss specific products and timelines, we will actively participate in the development of the broadband wireless market along with other industry leaders in the component, equipment, software, and network operator segments." — Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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