Heading upriver, WiMax wows tech groupies in Chicago

The promise of lower costs and its impact on Wi-Fi are still being described

Motorola and Sprint Nextel demonstrated mobile WiMax technology aboard a tour boat moving gracefully along the Chicago River this week, as ecstatic designers and marketing personnel trumpeted the technology for being nearly ready to bring cheap wireless broadband to the masses.

What was demonstrated, for about 100 analysts and reporters, worked well enough. But the big questions of how much it will cost and which technologies will be disrupted by WiMax are still up the air.

As for the technology demo: Seven laptops and five wireless phones were equipped with mobile laptop gear and were able to keep constant connections to data, video or voice streams while the boat moved perhaps 5 knots, several Motorola spokesmen said.

The devices were communicating with six WiMax antennas from Motorola affixed atop four buildings along the river, at the edge of Lake Michigan. Sprint provided the antenna sites near other more typical cell sites and has the available WiMax spectrum under its federal license.

The challenges include that the buildings were many stories tall, while the boat was well below street level, and it was moving. During the trip, a live CNN video broadcast was shown in full screen mode on a Dell laptop equipped with a Motorola WiMax card inserted in the PCMCIA slot. The quality was high and the motion was smooth.

Trying out several online bandwidth test sites, the upstream rate was measured at 1.5Mbit/sec. or more, and downstream at 2.5Mbit/sec. or more. With fewer machines scrambling for available bandwidth, one Motorola spokesman said the rate might have exceeded 10Mbit/sec.

On one of the phones, a video from YouTube also streamed in high quality. While the tests were not being done in a laboratory with careful measurements, analysts aboard the boat were clearly impressed by the technology. The PC card was the size of typical cards, with two small antennas at the end that fold up about 2 inches high. All that technology will eventually be inside the laptop, Motorola said.

Barry West, chief technology officer at Sprint and president of the new Sprint Xohm division devoted to WiMax, was treated like technology royalty aboard the boat, since he has championed WiMax for at least two years, working closely with Motorola and many other equipment makers to build a massive WiMax network. A small group of engineers even applauded him when he entered a room. The network is supposed to be live in Chicago and Baltimore/Washington later this year with rollouts nationally in 2008.

In a brief interview, West said Sprint has agreements with five laptop makers that will equip their laptops with WiMax. He wouldn't say who or when the laptops might be ready, but West used the example of the laptop makers to bolster his earlier claim that Sprint is hoping 50 million devices will work with WiMax in the next three years. West is sure of himself, at least to the extent that he said he recently began driving his car with a Virginia license plate that reads, Xohm."

West has said many times that WiMax will be much cheaper than next-generation wireless cellular, but the actual costs to end users are still not defined. The question of how fast a mobile worker or his company would move to a WiMax laptop depends on so many variables that several analysts were left scratching their heads.

Yankee Group Research has a somewhat conservative forecast for WiMax growth, predicting about 27 million subscribers in 2011, with about 7 million to 8 million in the U.S.

Some analysts theorized that WiMax could greatly harm municipal Wi-Fi efforts, where cities are working to set up shorter-range Wi-Fi access points than what WiMax affords. "But I can't see every city and town ripping out what they've already spent money on," said one analyst, who asked to remain nameless.

Thomas Elliott, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, who saw the demonstrations and heard the promises, was diplomatic about the value of the demonstration in light of so much that still must be revealed. "There are really so many questions still about WiMax," Elliott said.

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