Manufacturers and service providers looked at the emerging WiMax wireless technology this week and saw a possible rival to wired broadband services - at the end of what some see as a long standardisation process.

"We believe that WiMax can happen, and be widely deployed, and be a big deal in the next three years the same way Wi-Fi has been a big deal the last two years," said Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's communications group, in a keynote address at the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) International Technical Symposium & Business Expo in San Jose, California.

The conference focused on wireless broadband technology, in particular WiMax, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 family of standards. The WiMax Forum, a group of vendors and service providers, initially will certify products based on the 802.16d standard, designed for wireless base stations with a range as long as 50 kilometres (km). It is a point-to-multipoint technology, so it doesn't require a direct line of sight to the customer. A later version of the standard, 802.16e, will provide a relatively simple upgrade to access points to support mobile customers, according to François Draper, vice president of sales and marketing at Wavesat, and chairman of membership at the WiMax Forum.

A single base station could transmit hundreds of megabits per second of data, but the standard doesn't define how much of that capacity a service provider should give an individual customer, Draper said. Carriers typically would offer 2M bps (bits per second) or more to a small or medium-sized business, and 300K bps to 400K bps to consumers, he said.

Intel, which plans to make WiMax chips, expects the technology to hit the market next year for stationary broadband connectivity to businesses and homes and backhaul from Wi-Fi hotspots, Maloney said. Testing has shown such a technology can support the kinds of services associated with today's DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem services, including video, to homes and businesses in dense urban areas. Chips for WiMax products will start hitting the market this year, according to Guy Côté, director of international sales at Wavesat. The fabless semiconductor company aims to offer sample quantities of a chip in May and ship in volume by year's end.

Intel is placing its faith in standardisation, which has boosted product volume and slashed prices on IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN equipment. That scenario also looks rosy for service providers that hope to use wireless for affordable broadband in developing countries, according to at least one speaker at the conference.

However, some participants voiced concern over the time required for standardisation. The 802.16d standard should be essentially complete next month and approved in March, Draper said. However, the WiMax Forum probably won't certify any service provider equipment until the first quarter of 2005, after defining and carrying out a testing system, Draper said.

Meanwhile, the IEEE 802.16e working group probably will complete its specification at roughly the same time that the first 802.16d products are being certified.