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What next for WiMax?

Matthew Fordahl Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — On a stormy day at an Argentine agricultural school, Maria del Carmen Villar stood in front of a camera that streamed her image over the Internet to a conference more than 6,500 miles away.

Such an event is hardly unusual in this era of broadband and webcams, but it was a milestone for the Instituto Agropecuario de Monte, a rural school that until recently had only slow dial-up connections that were bogged down by text, let alone video.

The school in San Miguel del Monte, 90 miles outside Buenos Aires, is one of the first test sites for a wireless broadband technology called WiMax. Now, the school’s 250 students use the Internet for research in classrooms and in the fields. They’ve even collaborated online with schools as far away as Paris.

The demonstration showed WiMax can fulfill at least some of its many promises over the years.

It’s been hyped as an affordable way to bring the Internet to poorer and rural regions around the world, break the broadband duopoly of cable and phone companies and eventually cover entire countries with seamless high-speed Internet access for viewing video, making phone calls and completing other data-intensive tasks.

Trouble is, despite years of promises, WiMax has yet to move beyond trials and carefully scripted demonstrations, including those at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, where the San Miguel del Monte school was highlighted.

Skeptics question whether all the promises can be fulfilled and suggest that other technologies can solve the same problems sooner.

“Any new technology that comes out takes a while before it either fails or becomes broadly established. In that period, people can say it’s been overblown,” said Sean Maloney, general manager of the mobility group at Intel Corp., one of WiMax’s biggest cheerleaders. “I don’t think that applies to WiMax.”

WiMax — short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access — is expected in two flavors. The first, known as fixed wireless, is similar to the wireless standard known as Wi-Fi, but on a much larger scale and at faster speeds. A nomadic version would keep WiMax-enabled devices connected over large areas much like today’s cell phones.

Supporters say WiMax would complement and not compete with existing technologies such as Wi-Fi, the wireless networking technology now available through countless hotspots in parks, coffee shops, airports and other locales around the world.

While Wi-Fi typically provide local network access for around a few hundred feet with speeds of up to 54 megabits per second, a single WiMax antenna is expected to have a range of up to 40 miles with speeds of 70 megabits per second or more.

As such, WiMax can bring the underlying Internet connection needed to service local Wi-Fi networks.

The fixed wireless thrust of WiMax allows some portability within hotspots, but its main focus is on bypassing the last mile of wires that’s been critical in connecting people to the Internet. Today, that has mostly been the domain of telephone and cable companies that have existing pipes to homes and businesses.

Still, even supporters say WiMax isn’t likely to displace DSL or cable broadband services anytime soon. Rather, Maloney said, its biggest impact is where that infrastructure does not yet exist.

That was the case at the Argentine school, which was simply too remote for regular broadband. In fact, the country has been far behind the rest of the world in high-speed Internet access, said Ignacio Nores, marketing manager at Ertach, the Argentine service provider running the WiMax trial.

Maloney said the initial deployments of WiMax will largely be in fast-growing, emerging market economies.

Progress is being made. Late last year, a standard was approved. Now, the WiMax Forum, which will certify various vendors’ offerings for interoperability, counts 343 companies as members and has started testing products expected for release next year.

By standardizing the technology, supporters hope to create a flurry of competition among vendors, driving down prices and preventing a single company from dominating, said Charles Golvin, a Forrester Research analyst.

The number of trials has ballooned to more than 100, up from 50 just months ago.

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