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WiMAX, CDMA, cable ... Oh My!

By Sam Omatseye
RCR News, 3 January 2005

For all its anticipated glory, WiMAX technology harks back to the gold rush era when some gold diggers thought they could get rich without owning a plot of land. In the wireless world, spectrum is the land and services are the gold.

With the delays in fashioning a standard and a lack of spectrum, WiMAX technology, otherwise known as 802.16, may have to contend with such high-speed technologies as CDMA2000 1x EV-DO, HSDPA and another one sneaking quietly onto the scene: cable.

"It's hard to imagine WiMAX competing against DO," remarked Fritz Jordan, an analyst with Mobiletrax, because DO is already being deployed while WiMAX technology is much further behind in its development.

But the evolving story of WiMAX is a foretaste of the battle that may brew in the wide area network space once cable technology finds a business model for offering wireless services. A company called MediaCell Inc. says it has a product that will entice cable operators to take a second look at using wireless.

WiMAX technology comes in different versions, but the .16a version is capturing the enthusiasm of many vendors and operators because of its capacity to offer high-speed that can rival the wide area protocols.

The absence of a standard means that much of the technology will be proprietary, remarked Robert Sanchez, vice president and chief technology officer at consulting firm inCode Telecom. By the time standards are ready, operators that already have deployed the technology will have to go through the expensive process of ripping out their networks and installing standards-based infrastructure.

The lack of standards also implies a lack of interoperability to connect seamlessly with Wi-Fi or the wide area networks, explained Sanchez.

Meanwhile, both EV-DO and HSDPA technologies have gained a lot of traction in the past year. Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS have announced plans to deploy DO services. While Verizon has deployed the technology in some major markets, Sprint has signed major contracts with bellwether vendors after disavowing DO in its infant days.

But while some see WiMAX as the next disruptive technology, cable services also pose a future promise, or threat to wireless, depending on your position. Operators like Cox Communications Inc., Comcast and Time Warner Cable have indicated interest in entering the wireless services arena, with a rumored deal of a wireless trial between Time Warner and Sprint re-circulating just last week. Already some of them are offering home networking services. One of their first entry points could be offering Wi-Fi services, like Matrix Cablevision Inc. has done. Cable deployments can bridge through one or two Wi-Fi radio links between two sites, according to John Dahlquist, vice president of marketing, and Moshe Frozenfare, director of digital networks, both of Aurora Networks.

Hot-spot providers like Boingo Wireless and Wayport want to partner with cable players, but cable operators have yet to make alliances.

MediaCell Inc. has designed a new technology that could turn the cable industry's focus on wireless if it lives up to its promise. Mediacell has developed what it calls WirelessDrop, which allows cable operators to make wireless high-speed Internet available to residential and business customers with individual data rates over 100 Mbps.

The technology, which is UNIX-based, eliminates the need for local routers, switches, hubs and servers, said Anthony DiPaolo, president and chief executive officer of Mediacell. It leverages security with quality of service, said DiPaolo, while providing both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint services.

Mediacell said it has made inroads with an unnamed major European carrier, which is "the largest metro-area deployment of wireless broadband, providing a hot-zone of coverage of nearly 20 square miles."

In the United States, another company, Xpand Networks, is using MediaCell products to install wireless services in multidwelling units in Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., as well as at two golf courses in Alabama and multi-dwelling units in Texas and Denver.

Eight of the projects will be operating commercially March 1, according to John Grant, president of Xpand.

"We're excited," said Grant about Mediacell's WirelessDrop technology. "We waited for two years to get here. ... "We can go from outside in. We can saturate the area and penetrate the building completely."

He said big cable operators will be forced to go wireless once their systems are due for upgrade. "They'll get to replace their equipment and find out they'll save quite a lot of money if they go wireless," said Grant. "That's a capex decision they'll make as they continue to upgrade."