In what Intel and Interop officials are calling the first live demonstration of a metro-wide WiMax wireless network, Intel Mobility Group executive vice president and general manager Sean Maloney (see photo, left) took to the stage for an early evening keynote here in Las Vegas to prove that WiMax is for real.
Intel has been one of the biggest proponents of WiMax (officially known as 802.16), having recently teamed over the last-mile super high bandwidth wireless technology (some claim up to 70 mbps of shared data rates) with Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer ZTE as well as wireless pioneer McCaw. Intel also recently announced that WiMax connectivity will be an option on its Centrino platform -- the platform that many notebook manufacturers have been including in their current offerings. The Intel roadmap calls for inclusion of WiMax capabilties in its Centrino chipsets in 2006. While Maloney's keynote (available as an MP3 that can be downloaded. Or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in) covered a lot interesting ground -- including demonstrations of how Intel will be deploying one-click technologies that promise to more easily and efficiently pair Bluetooth enabled-devices such as notebooks and handsets -- more interesting was what the audience didn't hear -- the behind-the-scenes story of how Intel blanketed all of metropolitan Las Vegas with a WiMax network that, as it turns out, will survive the show.
First, some details on the demo itself. At the same time Maloney was on stage, he also had a few of the people in his organization scattered about the city connecting to the WiMax network and broadcasting live video directly back into a computer on stage. One person (an Elvis impersonator) was driving around in a recreational vehicle. Someone else was on a golf course. Another was out in the desert, and a fourth was perched on top of the Stratosphere tower -- a 1,149-foot-high tourist attraction that offers incredible unobstructed panoramic views of the city. Maloney's main message during the presentation was about how the ever improving bandwidth of wireless networks, when coupled with the also-improving performance and battery life of mobile processors, will contribute to the next boom in collaborative productivity. Earlier in the day, Cisco CEO John Chambers also talked about how the next big productivity gains will be extracted from the interactions between people. (Many of these interactions are collaborative in nature.)
Maloney gave this example: By using WiMax to help deliver high-quality video from a golf course to a golf pro, the pro could in turn provide real-time advice on how to improve a golfer's form. Though you may not be a golfer (I'm not), it's easy to see the business and consumer applications of video once the bandwith issues are overcome. Like the live video from the golfer, the Elvis impersonator in the RV was also able to deliver relatively good video back to the stage at Interop while the RV was driving down Las Vegas' famous strip (someone else was driving). In other words, the RV had continuous high-bandwidth connectivity as it moved about the city. So, how did Intel do it? What's the story behind the story? And what did Intel learn in the process?
According to Intel's Adam Moran, the hands-on man responsible for orchestrating the demonstration, the first challenge was getting the necessary permissions to blanket the city with a wireless network. For starters, since WiMax can operate in both regulated and unregulated frequencies, Intel chose to work in the unregulated 5.8 GHz band (the same band that some other consumer devices including phones operate in). The upside of going the unregulated route is that you don't have to deal with the authorities. The downside is that the network may encounter some interference (and interference invariably affects performance). Accepting that tradeoff -- in the name of getting the demo ready for Maloney -- was a no-brainer.
Even though Intel wouldn't have to worry about working in a regulated frequency, it still had to figure out how to blanket the entire city. For the same reason that the Stratosphere has unobstructed views of all of Las Vegas (and beyond), it was also the perfect place to mount four directional WiMax antennas, each pointing outward in a different direction (north, south, east, and west) in a way that covered the entire city with a WiMax signal. The first hitch Intel ran into was in getting the Stratosphere to agree. According to Moran, the Stratosphere has arrangements with other network providers that prevented an additionalparty from mounting antennas on its towers and hosting a wireless network. But, as luck would have it, another company that did have those rights -- MPower Communications -- had such an interest in the idea that it actually agreed to buy the equipment. When the demo and Interop are over, the equipment and the blanket coverage it provides to the city stays in place. Said Moran: "To do the demo, we came in way under budget because we avoided the cost of buying the equipment as well as taking it down after the demo was over. Moran said MPower's interest in running the city-wide WiMax network had to do with its desire to deliver connectivity to new business customers within minutes as opposed to the days or weeks it might take to dig a trench somewhere. Another reason that MPower had interest in the WiMax network, according to Moran, was to provide backup connectivity to businesses like banks for whom connectivity was mission critical.
The equipment that Intel mounted on the Stratosphere to blanket the city consisted of four Alvarion BreezMax Outdoor Access Units and, to connect to the WiMax network, each of the mobile subjects that were roaming around Greater Las Vegas had a fairly large antenna that they were carrying with them. (It fit under their arms, but it was by no means very portable -- expect this to change.) But that alone wasn't enough, since the convention wasn't taking place in the Stratosphere. The convention is taking place across town at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, which meant that for the demo, a backhaul network between the two Las Vegas locations was needed. Fortunately, given the Stratosphere's height, it has an unimpeded view of the Mandalay Bay, which in turn meant that a high-bandwidth line-of-sight wireless technology could be used for the backhaul. For this, Intel used the Alvarion's 72 mbps-rated Link Blaster. MPower apparently kept the Link Blaster unit that was installed on top of the Stratosphere. But the corresponding unit that was mounted on the Mandalay Bay was taken down. From the unit on the Mandalay Bay, however, the bits were delivered down to the keynote stage through a regular switched local area network.
Although the video was choppy at times, Maloney showed during the presentation how the choppiness was a function of the processor strength of the computers and not the network. Moran said they took the opportunity to run some benchmarks on the network once Intel had it up and running. The data rates ranged from 7 mbps to 16 mbps between the mobile subjects and the BreezeMax units on the Stratosphere, and they saw consistent 30 mbps performance between the Link Blasters.
While the WiMax demo was the coolest part of Maloney's demo, the best reality check came when he discussed how the performance gap was narrowing between handhelds and PCs. To prove his point, he pitted two systems against one another on stage using a video-playback test, and showed how a tower was outpeforming a notebook. (The tower deliver crisp clean video while the notebook's was choppy.) But then, admitting the ruse, he lifted the tower-box to reveal that the crisp video was coming from an Intel-powered handheld hidden inside. Maloney admitted that the notebook was a 2001-class system, but the point was clear: Today's handhelds are more powerful than four-year-old notebooks and that the timegap between the two has one direction to go: down.