UK chip maker PicoChip has launched a system designed to accelerate the production of gear based on the upcoming broadband wireless standard, WiMax, by making it easier for manufacturers to keep their equipment standards-compliant.

WiMax offers fixed wireless services similar to ADSL or cable broadband, but can theoretically be deployed far more cheaply because it doesn't require operators to lay cable. A promised upgrade will make it even more attractive by adding mobile broadband wireless to the mix. In recent months, the technology has attracted increasing levels of hype with Intel, Alcatel and Siemens announcing their backing.

However, the standard won't be ratified until later this year, leading to a dilemma for equipment makers wishing to tap into WiMax demand.

PicoChip claims its PicoArray chip offers an immediate solution since it is entirely software-defined, so systems can be upgraded or altered to fit the evolving WiMax standard without the need to replace hardware. Not only does this make its products attractive to manufacturers worried about a pre-standard WiMax is currently pre-standard, but PicoChip will make it an easier transition to the mobile version of the standard, IEEE 802.16e, the company claims.

While promising compatibility with future standards always entails a risk, "ours is the best-tested technology for mitigating that risk," PicoChip CTO and co-founder Doug Pulley told Techworld. "Even substantial changes [to the standard] could be supported."

PicoChip, founded in 2000, started off making silicon for 3G base stations, and says it has a number of design wins for both 3G and WiMax. PicoArray is an array of simple processors which, together, offer the computational efficiency of a chip designed for a particular application with the configurability of a DSP (digital signal processor).

Baseband processors currently make up 20 percent of the silicon of a basestation. PicoChip says one of its devices can replace 20 DSPs; for example, a 64-channel 3G base station can be built with just eight of its chips, which would result in an 80 percent cost savings on materials, according to the company.

The company's technology may be alluring, but it is up against established giants such as TI, and Intel in the WiMax market. Intel recently announced it would supply silicon for Alcatel WiMax equipment, due later this year.

And not everyone is convinced the hype around WiMax is justified. While it theoretically offers a standardised approach to the fragmented field of wireless broadband, its success is not guaranteed, according to Gartner analyst Ian Keene. "Whether it is competitive to other solutions on the market depends on the products' quality and pricing, and the question of when it will be deployed," he said.

Much of the attention around WiMax centres on its potential for mobility, but the 802.16e standard won't even come into existence for years, Keene points out. "WiMax has been hyped up because of Intel's involvement, and people are seeing it as a new mobile technology like Wi-Fi. But there is a long way to go before mobility arrives."

The promised commoditisation and lower prices will face obstacles such as different spectrum licensing regulations in different countries, Keene said.

PicoChip's Pulley was more confident about the immediate-term demand for standardised wireless broadband, arguing that besides mobility, there are many fixed systems, such as the backhaul for cellular and 3G deployments, which could benefit from WiMax in the near term. "There are plenty of fixed wireless applications that can be very cost-effectively dealt with by WiMax to start with," he said.