BT is to roll out a commercial wireless broadband service, in what will be one of the UK's first significant implementations of the technology.

The telco has won a bid from the Northern Ireland government to give the region 100 percent broadband coverage, using a combination of standard ADSL and Alvarion's wireless broadband equipment, BT told Techworld. BT expects the coverage to have a significant impact on businesses in the area.

Wireless will be used to offer services where ADSL is not available, and the overall Northern Ireland service is due for completion by the end of next year. The contract was finalised in late March, but was not publicised at the time, BT said this week.

The rollout follows on from several months of successful trials in Ballingry in Fife, Scotland, Pwllheli in Wales, Porthleven in England and Campsie in Northern Ireland. "We have been happy with the trials, and we now have a proven product," said a BT Retail spokesman. "We want to replicate this rollout in other areas [of the UK], but it requires partnership with regional development agencies."

BT has said it wants to make broadband available across all UK communities, using wireless to reach those which currently aren't in range of ADSL, but says this is only possible if bankrolled by regional development agency funds.

ADSL has proven to be a viable alternative to traditional business Internet solutions such as leased lines, particularly for smaller businesses, branch offices and the like. However, businesses currently don't have access to these low-cost connections if they're out of range of an ADSL-enabled telephone exchange. BT's wireless service, which it calls "radio broadband", is designed to offer ADSL-type services at ADSL prices to anyone in the UK, regardless of geography.

"If a business wants ADSL but is out of range, they are currently dependent on hitting a trigger level [of local ADSL demand] in order to get their local exchange enabled. That might take a long time. This could be the perfect solution," the BT spokesman said.

Wireless broadband can be used for more than just ADSL-style connections, however. Telecommunications companies and businesses are showing strong interest in the technology as a complement to Wi-Fi, GPRS and 3G. In North America, a handful of companies are already offering wireless services that compete with ADSL and cable, some of which also offer mobile services for laptops and PDAs.

Much of the current interest in wireless broadband has been spurred by efforts around the 802.16 WiMax standard, backed by Intel, Alcatel, Siemens and other industry heavyweights, which promises to make services economically viable by bringing down the cost of equipment. The fixed 802.16d standard will be supplemented in about two years by 802.16e, which will add mobility.

But since the first WiMax-certified gear will not arrive until next year, current wireless broadband demand is being filled by proprietary technology such as Alvarion's. Demand for proprietary wireless broadband systems is growing quickly, with unit shipments to grow 50 percent from 2003 to 2004, according to a report earlier this month from ABI Research. "While many vendors have pledged support for WiMax, operators' plans for the technology remains guarded (while) actual spending on proprietary technologies surges," ABI noted in the report.

Even Alcatel, which is planning to debut Intel-based WiMax gear late this year, is selling proprietary gear from Navini in the mean time, the company announced last week.

This situation means WiMax will not become mainstream until the end of this decade, ABI projected, when WiMax spending will eclipse that of other technologies. The firm expects the WiMax industry to hit an annual turnover of $1 billion (£540m) by 2009.

Intel downplayed the use of proprietary technology in new wireless broadband installations, arguing such rollouts are "a very small piece of the overall broadband wireless opportunity".

"We see WiMax as a common evolution of all the different proprietary technologies out there," the Intel spokesman said. "Over time, most of the big companies are going to go after the standard."

Both Alvarion and Navini have committed to promoting the WiMax standard once it is finalised. BT has also expressed strong interest in WiMax, particularly in its potential for mobility.

Irish Broadband is using Alvarion gear in a Dublin wireless network for consumer and corporate customers.