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WiMAX roadshow rolls into town

First world conference set for Boston

Calling this "the dawn of the WiMAX era", Trendsmedia is kicking off the first WiMAX World Conference and Exposition, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, MA on 3-4 November, 2004. Yes, the bandwagon is rolling. But unusually, this conference isn't a cheerleader convention; it has its sceptics lined up.

"For the first time, all of the major WiMAX players, technologies, and applications will be presented in an informative, fast-paced, interactive forum that will explore and clarify all aspects of what is likely to be the next significant advance in wireless." All too often, these people come together to create a kind of religious revival fervour. On this occasion, it really looks like realism is going to prevail.

The organisers aren't over-selling the technology. "With promises of base stations priced below $15,000 and CPE below $200 - and eventually below $30 - not to mention a WiMAX 'Centrino' in the laptop or phone, the economics look, on the surface, compelling," says the introduction, cautiously.

The arguments pro: "WiMAX can use unlicensed or licensed spectrum, it can offer DSL-class broadband access with no truck roll and without laying wire, and it can backhaul hotspots and in-fill cellular networks cost effectively," they point out. "But many of the same arguments have been made for WiMAX's smaller relative, WiFi, and public WLans have yet to deliver an attractive revenue/profit model for operators. There are fears that WiMAX, too, could fail to deliver on its apparent promise, and go the same way as the broadband wireless experiments of the 1990s."

All this scepticism doesn't mean the show will fail - at leats, it won't be for lack of sponsorship. The list of sponsors down the edge of the website is endless, it seems.

Even the list of sponsor classifications baffles the mind: "Association Sponsor, Analyst Sponsors, Corporate Platinum Sponsors Research Sponsor, Conference Luncheon Sponsor, Flagship Media Sponsor, Conference Breakfast Sponsor, Official Media Sponsors (three), Corporate Gold Sponsors, Supporting Media Sponsors (eighteen!), Technology Showcase Sponsors, News Distribution Sponsors, and, finally, Contributing Sponsors are all listed.

The known enthusiasts are there, of course. There's a pre-conference seminar on 2 November, with a "state of WiMAX overview" by the legendary Caroline Gabriel of Wireless Watch, wearing her "Rethink Research" hat, and she's also doing a "how to make money out of Wimax" session at 11 am on the first official day, 3 November.

The show doesn't offer blind enthusiasm. There are (understandably) enthusiastic pitches from people using the current 802.16d - fixed wireless - standard for competing with wired telcos.But the future which makes Intel such a fervent supporter of WiMAX is mobile.

There's a chilling warning for the mobile groupies from Senza Fili Consulting: "Mobility support is still several years away." Yes, indeed, and it's a point often (deliberately?) ignored by enthusiasts.

Speaker Monica Paolini summarises: "802.16e promises to provide mobile support for WiMAX clients for speeds up to 150km/hour. The opportunity to offer both fixed and mobile services using the same infrastructure and the same subscriber devices is one of the most compelling arguments in favour to deploy WiMAX in high-density, urban areas. Yet mobility support is still several years away."

The session will give you an update on the standardisation and certification progress and discuss key issues that need to be resolved to support mobility. "Availability of cheap mobile (or at least portable) WiMAX clients is the first requirement to support mobility. Furthermore, multi-mode devices or cognitive radios may be needed to use networks that operate in different bands."

It is also unlikely that only one service provider will deploy within a country, said Paolini. "To ensure country-wide, or international, access to networks managed by different service providers, roaming agreements will have to be established. The experience of WiFi roaming has thought us that roaming relationships are not easy to establish - mostly because they involve complex partnerships and a common infrastructure."

My focus will be on the guy who seems to have grasped the nub of the problem: Bob Egan, the conference chair, who will ask: "What is a licensed spectrum?"

It's the whole point of WiMAX, in the opinion of some pundits. Bob Egan's session points out: "WiMAX was developed to operate in both licensed and unlicensed portions of the spectrum, although some would rather have a bunch of "licensed" spectrum. This brings up the issue of what a "licence" will be going forward."

Indeed, it does. Egan sums up: "Today a licence for a particular radio channel or piece of spectrum comes with a reasonable expectation of being able to operate on these channels or spectrum slices free of interference from others. In most cases, licences are exclusive for a given geographical area though there are some shared spectrum uses. If WiMAX wins licensed spectrum, will it be licensed in the same manner as today's spectrum? Or will the FCC and others in Washington DC use WiMAX-exclusive spectrum as an experiment in software-defined or cognitive radio technologies and let multiple licensees operate in the same spectrum slice "managing" interference among themselves?"

The experiment with licence-free spectrum is not yet proven successful, Egan will point out. "The WiFi spectrum at 2.4 GHz is already suffering from interference between WiFi ISP's who are trying to use WiFi. Will WiMAX be able to avoid the same levels of interference on unlicensed spectrum or will it succumb to the same problems presently being experienced by the WiFi providers?"

The "vision" will be offered. For anybody who hasn't yet heard, there's the obligatory cheerleader presentation by WiMax Forum chair, Ron Resnick - who just happens to be director of marketing, Broadband Wireless division, Intel. Will the interference and licence problems strangle WiMAX? Or, will the momentum Intel is putting behind WiMAX enable the authorities to come up with a new model for spectrum allocation?

It promises to be an interesting convention.

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