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WiMax Moves Closer To Reality

Major telecom carriers are taking small but important steps toward making large-scale, high-speed wireless networks broadly available to businesses and residents in select metropolitan areas.

Major telecom carriers are taking small but important steps toward making large-scale, high-speed wireless networks broadly available to businesses and residents in select metropolitan areas.

BellSouth will deploy a wireless broadband service to some areas of Athens, Ga., in August and will expand the service to several unspecified cities in Florida later this year, the company said last week.

That move follows AT&T's test of a WiMax-type service using technology from Navini Networks in Middletown, N.J., that began in May. "Our WiMax trial in New Jersey is off to a great start," says Hossein Eslambolchi, president of global networking technology services, chief technology officer, and CIO at AT&T. "Feedback is helping us increase the value of the technology for our enterprise customers." Sprint, meanwhile, said earlier this year that it plans to conduct trials of WiMax as equipment becomes available.

Telecom carriers are pushing along the development of WiMax, the industry term for wireless metropolitan access networks based on IEEE 802.16 specifications. BellSouth calls its work in Georgia and Florida "pre-WiMax," since equipment such as processors, routers, and chips designed for IEEE 802.16 hasn't been tested and approved. That testing is slated to start in July, and products are expected to be available to wireless Internet service providers and telecom carriers late this year. WiMax compliance is important, as it's intended to ensure quality and compatibility among technologies used for creating miles-long wireless networks.

BellSouth's FastAccess Internet Service will provide Internet access to customers at ranges of 3 to 5 miles and speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps. Its new service is partly intended to help rural communities where traditional cable broadband and DSL services can't reach, says Mel Levine, director of wireless broadband at BellSouth.

Businesses interested in the WiMax development include Genuine Parts Co., which has 57 U.S. distribution centers and wants faster back-up for its frame-relay network; it's currently using ISDN dial-up lines. "We're looking for a truly wireless way to have a backup for our landlines if our frame-relay data circuits go down," says David Russell, director of technology planning.

In October, Rio Rancho, N.M., deployed wireless network services of up to 4 Mbps across 103 square miles—by blanketing the region with Wi-Fi hot-spots using equipment and services from Proxim Corp. and Azulstar Networks. The goal was twofold: make high-speed Internet access available in rural locations and attract more businesses to the community. "We're eager to have businesses come settle here and take advantage of this wireless infrastructure," says Peggy McCarthy, assistant to the city administrator at Rio Rancho.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission recently allocated the 3.65 to 3.70-GHz spectrum for WiMax in an effort to set a global standard. "The spectrum is globally harmonized for WiMax use, and right now, the time is right for the technology," said Khurram Sheikh, chief technical adviser of broadband wireless access at Sprint, during the Supercomm 2005 conference last week.

But before WiMax gains serious momentum, a supporting ecosystem needs to be in place, said John Muleta, former chairman of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, also at Supercomm. This means government regulations have to be in favor of WiMax, service providers have to aggressively pursue the market, applications need to be developed, and equipment needs to be inexpensive and widely available.

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