Telabria is rolling out the first commercial WiMax network in South East England, using fancy technological footwork to shrug off predictions of doom.

The UK's first WiMax (IEEE 802.16) network, covering most of Kent, will begin testing in January and deliver a commercial service in mid-2005, the company told the WiMax Forum Boston. Ironically, Cisco's chief technology officer Charles Giancarlo was also in Boston, to tell the Next Generation Networks conference that WiMax would be rendered pointless by 3G networks.

"Cisco is not invested in WiMax," Giancarlo said. "DSL and cable are [already] there, and they are much more deterministic." According to wireless news site Unstrung, Giancarlo's argument was the 3G phone networks would already be in use by the time WiMax got going, so why should service providers spend on both: "Why would anyone build two parallel [wireless broadband] networks? Perhaps it will provide a better technology for hotspots like airports, but I still maintain that the case for WiMax is challenging at the moment."

The economics of WiMax - with expensive equipment subsidised by the operators - could go bad very quickly, warned Giancarlo, as they have done for other wireless systems including LMDS and MMDS. However, Telabria's announcement could give the lie to this argument. Covering a relatively small region of the UK, it would not be suitable for a 3G of its own, and the company has juggled technologies to bring down the cost of the network.

Telabria's network will in fact be a hybrid, using WiMax in the 3.5GHz band for enterprise customers and to extend its backbone - it has 400 Wi-Fi hotspots, including 60 at pubs belonging to Faversham's 300-year old Shepherd Neame brewery - and will include 802.11-based links for some end user connections.

"We will deploy WiMax as a point-to-point system to backhaul traffic and as a point-to-multipoint system to route traffic to and from residential users and small and medium-size businesses in rural areas where broadband infrastructure is poor or non-existent," said Jim Baker, Telabria's chief executive.

The trial uses Redline's AN-100, an IEEE 802.16 system that Baker is confident will pass WiMax certification by the middle of next year. "We don't want to wait with our trial until this product has WiMax Forum certification, but we will wait for certification before we launch our service commercially," Baker said. The WiMax Forum narrows down options in the IEEE's 802.16-2004 standard to form a tighter definition, but WiMax certified products are not expected until mid-2005.

Telabria's small-business option has caused some discussion: The "802.11-based" systems from SkyPilot are not compatible with standard Wi-Fi kit, requiring a special box from Telabria. The company's reasoning is to do with the price and function of the boxes it delivers to end users (known as customer premises equipment, or CPE).

Although service providers subsidise the cost of CPE, Baker explained, WiMax boxes are likely to cost around £540 ($1000), and so will be too expensive to use for residential users and small and medium-size businesses initially. Telabria will use "802.11-based" systems from SkyPilot, which have extra quality-of-service and security features, and cost Telabria around £188 ($349). "That is much more affordable than the $1,000 that we expect WiMax systems to cost initially," he said.

The Skypilot boxes use off-the-shelf 802.11 silicon, but the service-provider software makes them incompatible with Wi-Fi kit. "While SkyPilot uses 802.11 chipsets, its network isn't compatible with standard 802.11 gear," commented Nancy Gohring of Wi-Fi Networking News. "That means that end users can't use off-the-shelf PC cards or other standard user equipment to access the network. Customers must use SkyPilot antennas to receive the signal."

Service to residential users and small businesses will cost under £20 per month for 1Mbit/s transmission speeds, a price in line with UK DSL prices, according to Baker. Service will also be available at speeds up to 3Mbit/s for an additional price. Enterprise customers will be offered end-to-end WiMax links on the Redline boxes, with committed rates. From the start, Telabria plans to offer a VoIP service, according to Baker.

WiMax, based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, can extend broadband wireless to around 48km, and support data transmission speeds up to 70Mbit/s. The WiMax Forum, established in 2001 by a number of industry heavyweights, has been working on standards certification and interoperability testing. WiMax trials are sprouting up around Europe, in the Norwegian city of Skelleftea, and Dublin. For more, read our features on The WiMax hype cycle and the likely problems it will face.

Next Generation Networks was held in the Marriott Copley Place, Boston, while the Wimax World Forum was in Boston Park Plaza - we wonder if anyone went to both.

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John Blau, IDG News Service, contributed to this report