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BellSouth on Tuesday said it will begin testing mobile WiMax technology from Alcatel, looking to find new ways to offer wireless broadband Internet access. The trials will start next quarter at BellSouth's lab, and commercial services based on the technology could be offered as early as 2007.
WiMax promises broadband access to Internet users at a fraction of today's cost and at much faster speeds and longer ranges. But there's a long list of roadblocks to widespread commercial use. One is support from telecommunications carriers, which is why the BellSouth tests are so significant. Unlike Wi-Fi, WiMax requires licensed spectrum, which is scarce in the United States. The biggest segment available is in the 2.5 GHz range that is primarily owned by Sprint Nextel.
BellSouth owns spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band and is awaiting final approval from the WiMax Forum to use the spectrum for WiMax deployments, says Mel Levine, director of wireless product management for BellSouth. BellSouth claims to be the first major telecom carrier to commercially launch wireless broadband services in the United States using pre-WiMax technology—one that has the functionality of WiMax but is based on a proprietary platform that hasn't been certified by the WiMax Forum. "We see it as very valuable piece of spectrum for wireless broadband," says Levine, "but it's going to be difficult to do a large-scale deployment of wireless technology in the 2.3 band without it being a WiMax-accepted band."
Although Alcatel's system is intended for mobile deployments, Levine says BellSouth plans to provide fixed WiMax in urban and rural areas, where it currently doesn't offer Digital Subscriber Line services. Industry experts predict that WiMax won't replace third-generation cellular, Wi-Fi, and fixed broadband networks, but will be complementary to them. "That's why we're working with Alcatel: To get to a point where we do have a commercially viable and available WiMax platform," says Levine.
The BellSouth tests would be based on the mobile WiMax standard IEEE 802.16e-2005. Most WiMax pilots today are so-called fixed WiMax, which require users to keep their laptops close to their wireless routers. The mobile WiMax technology is designed to let users roam and pick up a signal much like a cell phone picks up a signal from the nearest broadcast point.
The first products to be officially certified by the WiMax Forum, an organization promoting WiMax adoption, adhere to 802.16-2004 standard for fixed WiMax and are interoperable with other standardized products from Aperto Networks, Redline Communications, Sequans, and Wavesat. The products all operate in the 3.5 GHz band.