The launch of Intel's first-generation WiMax chip has been hailed as a breakthrough for WiMax. But what will they support and how quickly will we start to see products that use them?

First-generation WiMax chips will spawn devices for wireless broadband end users in less than a year, that cost less than US$200 and won't require a visit by a service provider, a company executive said on Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

The chips, code-named Rosedale and now shipping to key system makers in sample quantities, will support long-range services that can penetrate the outer wall of a home or office, so customers should be able to install the client equipment themselves, said Scott Richardson, general manager of Intel's broadband wireless group, in a speech at IDF. The chips were announced earlier Tuesday at ITU Telecom Asia, in Busan, South Korea.

Users get WiMax in a year

The system makers now getting Rosedale samples will build them into test devices over the next six to nine months and roll out their equipment to end users next year, Richardson said.

WiMax is designed to provide wireless data at speeds comparable to wired broadband in a neighbourhood or across a rural region with a reach as long as 30 miles (48 km). The first generation coming next year, based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard, is intended to take the place of cable modem or DSL (digital subscriber line) services in a fixed location. Carriers will be able to deploy base stations that deliver about 70 Mbit/s for customers to share, Richardson said.

Another standard under development, known as IEEE 802.16e, should lead to services in 2006 that a user will be able to access from multiple locations around a metropolitan area, Richardson said. True mobility comes in 2007, when Intel expects to deliver WiMax chips that fit in cell phones and can be used with services that hand off the user from one base station to another. Nevertheless, Intel expects WiMax to complement both Wi-Fi and 3G (third-generation) cellular mobile data services, he said.

Self-service WiMax will change the rules
Broadband wireless has been held back by numerous issues, including equipment cost and the need for a "truck roll" by the carrier - a visit by an installation engineer to ensure such issues as a direct line of sight from the service provider's tower to the customer's home or office. The standards-based Rosedale technology will help eliminate those problems and drive the cost of client gear down below $200 from the $350 to $500 cost of current proprietary systems, according to Richardson.

Intel believes price declines will ultimately take WiMax hardware down to Wi-Fi prices. The WiMax proponents have generally been very upbeat about the technology's prospects, but there are a set of objectionsquoted by analysts and industry participants, in particular the special requirements of carriers and the broad range of radio frequencies that may be used by WiMax. Unlike Wi-Fi, WiMax is not tied to particular frequencies, making a global market less easy to achieve.

Richardson stood by the mantra. WiMax could meet the price of Wi-Fi within two years, he said. The key, he said, is emerging radio chips that can support multiple frequencies. "If you count up all the pieces and you include a multiband radio, we don't see any reason why we can't approach Wi-Fi in terms of price points," he said in an interview following his address.

Which band will it hit first?
The exact spectrum that the first Wi-Fi will be using has begun to emerge and Richardson agrees that initially it will appear on the licensed 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz ranges and the unlicensed 5GHz spectrum also used by IEEE 802.11a Wi-Fi networks, Richardson said. With Rosedale, Intel will turn to third parties for the accompanying radio chips, but the company is looking at making WiMax radio chips itself in the future, he said. In July, the company showed off a WiMax radio chip from its lab that Intel officials said could also support other wireless technologies at the same time.

Rosedale can be used both for indoor, customer-installed equipment and gear with outdoor antennas. In developed markets such as the US and Europe, the indoor gear may bring broadband to less populated regions not served by cable or DSL. WiMax may play an even more critical role in less developed countries, where in some cases no wired broadband is available. In those countries, if the cost of a truck roll is lower, carriers may install customer equipment with outdoor antennas. That will let them deploy fewer base stations, because they can reach the outdoor antennas from farther away, he said.