About a year ago, Intel, Nokia, Fujitsu and a few others decided to forge ahead with what it saw as the next big wireless market after Wi-Fi, the 802.16 family of broadband wireless access standards: they formed the WiMax Forum to promote the technology and offer certification. The ensuing publicity, largely fuelled by Intel, has been perhaps more successful than any could have hoped, leading to an intense interest in all things WiMax, WiMax-like or 'pre-Wimax'. Important communications companies like BT and France Telecom have joined the Forum in recent days. There are even products on the way that seem to justify the furore, with Intel and Alcatel announcing they'll have the first WiMax chipsets in production by the end of this year (they won't be certified until next year).

Even as WiMax shows up ever more often in headlines, industry analysts say the technology has just about reached the peak of the hype cycle, and is due for a reality check. Nokia's recent decision to bow out of the Forum made some question whether the claims for WiMax had been overstated. Few doubt that WiMax will revolutionise wireless network access, but exactly what its effects will be needs to be clarified. "WiMax will succeed commercially, but not easily, nor quickly," says Pyramid Research. "There is a great deal of vendor resistance, operator reluctance and general market confusion at work."

In particular, companies interested in better, cheaper and more widely available fixed broadband services would do well to keep an eye on WiMax. But if the main requirement is mobile broadband, WiMax will not even be in the running for several years. It would be better to look at offerings using proprietary technologies or, more likely in Western Europe, a combination of 3G, GPRS and Wi-Fi.

The promise of WiMax
The initial 802.16 standard is designed for a vast array of fixed broadband wireless access technologies operating in the 10GHz to 66GHz frequency range and promises to deliver up to 70 Mbit/s over a range of 30 miles for each base station. The 802.16d standard, upon which the first equipment will be based, is only good for fixed connections, as a complement to or replacement for things like T1 and ADSL lines. The later 802.16e revision promises to add mobility into the mix via a relatively simple upgrade - ultimately meaning WiMax could be embedded in laptops the way Wi-Fi is today.

In short, the WiMax Forum hopes that WiMax signals will blanket the globe, providing access in the office, in the car and on the train, and bringing broadband Internet access to underdeveloped areas where wired infrastructure is scarce. Just as people began switching off their wired phone lines once mobile phones improved to a certain point, some industry observers believe that data will naturally shift over to wireless networks as price and performance improve.

To start off with, WiMax's promises are more modest: the initial standard will only be good for fixed deployments, using a receiver about the size of a paperback book that will connect to a PC's Ethernet port. "It's very easy, given the huge amount of WiMax hype at the moment, to see WiMax as the next big thing after 3G," says Gartner analyst Ian Keene. "But that's not the case - it's a fixed wireless solution, an alternative to DSL. (Mobile WiMax) is a new cellular technology, and it's got a heck of a long way to go."

Even for fixed use, wireless has certain advantages over wired, as demonstrated by existing installations using proprietary, pre-WiMax technologies. It can be deployed more cheaply - no truck rolls or digging up the streets - and, unlike wired systems, is easy to upgrade, so that it is theoretically future-proof. Cheap setup costs, along with the fact that pre-WiMax technology can operate on unlicensed spectrum, means that smaller operators can set up to compete with the established telcos, potentially offering less expensive and more innovative services. In the US, NextWeb in California and TowerStream on the east coast are both competing in markets already served by DSL, T1 and cable. Irish Broadband is using Alvarion's pre-Wimax equipment in a Dublin wireless network for consumer and corporate customers.

Currently, there are no enterprise offerings like these in the UK, but that situation could change when WiMax-standard kit becomes available next year, argues Intel - setup costs will then go down and providers won't be tied into a single hardware maker for all their infrastructure. Companies will even have the option of cutting ISPs out of the picture and offering connectivity to their own workers and facilities using an unlicensed flavour of WiMax.

The biggest immediate market for WiMax will be in remote areas or less developed parts of the world, where wired infrastructure is scarce; this could have an impact on companies with offices in rural areas or even Eastern European cities. BT is planning to use Alvarion gear, in combination with ADSL, to offer 100 percent broadband coverage in Northern Ireland, and has said it will do the same in England if it receives government subsidies.

How could all this possibly go wrong? We're glad you asked. Read part 2 here to find out.