When broadband flows like a river

Tuesday night, at the WiMax World 2007 conference, Motorola herded a hundred customers, staff, press, and industry analysts last night onto a cruiseboat on the Chicago River. The scenic ride, replete with beer, wine, and appetizers, was more than a junketâ''the company claimed it was the first public demonstration of a fully mobile WiMax network based on IEEE 802.16e, the current version of that standard.

Mototolaâ''and a number of other companies, notably Sprint, Samsung, Nokia, and Intelâ''have made heavy bets that WiMax is a key technology for mobile broadband. So the demonstration was a welcome proof that things are on track, especially welcome for Sprint, which will be rolling out a nationwide WiMax-based service beginning in January. The first two metro areas are Chicago and Baltimore-Washington D.C.

WiMax is still only occasionally in the news, and sometimes it seems both too old and too new to talk about. Spectrumâ''s first article about it was way back in 2003. And yet, itâ''s also just coming to market, and outside of Korea, no one has really seen it in mobile form. The IEEE 802.16 standard, on which it is based, has had a variegated, if not particularly troubled, history. It started out as a way to offer a wireless version of the classic T1 (1.5 Mb/s) last-mile data connection between a business and the Internet.

It was clear early on that WiMax, unlike Wi-Fi, could create fast point-to-multipoint data connections between individuals and a base station. Unsurprisingly, some companies began to offer equipment that offered, in effect, a wireless DSL service. Soma Networks, earned our Winner designation in January 2006 for just that.

But it was some South Korean engineers who first took WiMaxâ''s potential to an obvious conclusion by adding mobility. They called their version of the standard â''WiBroâ'' and by 2005 they had made it work. Launched in June 2006 by Korea Telecom, the service is widely available today there, if still little-used. WiBro is now considered one â''profileâ'' of the 802.16e standard. Though there are significant differences between it and the current main line of 16e development, Samsung has used its WiBro experience to good effect in developing equipment for Sprintâ''s network.

Both Motorola and Samsung are key equipment suppliers in what Sprint calls its WiMax ecosystem, for which it is creating a separate brand and business unit called Xohm. So is Nokia. That gives the ecosystem the #1, 2, and 3 manufacturers of handsets. Motorola has also already shown a laptop card and a home transceiverâ''the wireless equivalent of a DSL router.

The ecosystem already includes a number of companies. Intel and Fujitsu, and a number of smaller manufacturers, Sequans, WaveSat, Comsys, picoChip, Runcom, and Beceem. Motorola, Samsung, and Nokia make chipsets as well, but only for their own equipment. They wonâ''t be selling them to others.

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The river cruise showed off Motorolaâ''s ability to maintain streaming video sessions and voice-over-IP phone calls even during handoffs from one base station to another. The company had erected base stations atop four office buildings along the Chicago waterfront. (Sprint may or may not keep those base stations in its network deployment.)

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Particularly impressive was a laptop that used as a modem a Razr phone with Motorolaâ''s WiMax chipset in it. The Razr looked only a tiny bit thicker than a regular Razr, probably still the most popular cellphone on the market today.

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The laptop ran diagnostic software that could â''seeâ'' all the network activity including the handoffs. Claudio Krieghoff, a Motorola network engineer in charge of the diagnostics, said he was seeing data rates of 11-14 megabits per second from the base stations and 3-4 Mb/s up to it. Krieghoff, who is normally based in Florida, said that besides the slow-moving riverboat, the setup had been tested the week before in cars driving up and down the lakeside, with similar results.

WiMax towers can be found other places besides the Chicago riverfront. Sprintâ''s own test network is in Herndon, Va. And Clearwire, a relatively new Seattle-based wireless operator, has been testing the same Motorola equipment in Portland since early this year. Clearwire and Sprint have been developing a partnership agreement that will allow them to each develop WiMax in separate cities and allow customers to roam between the services.

Sprint expects its first two cities to have full commercial service in April, after a final four months of public testing. The company says its coverage will be available to 100 million people in the U.S. by the end of 2008. Clearwire will cover another 30 million. Clearwire already operates wireless phone and broadband service in 34 U.S. markets using Motorola equipment that it calls â''pre-WiMax,â'' and in many cases it will be upgrading these existing networks, keeping them backwardly compatible with the current service.

WiMax is almost here, and once it starts, itâ''s going to come in a rush.

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