BT eyes up a WiMax future

WiMax is creating quite a stir in tech circles and BT is already using it to bring broadband to four rural locations. Could this be followed by a major rollout?

Four radio-broadband trials being conducted by BT in rural parts of the UK could be the prelude to a full-scale deployment of WiMax in Britain.

These trials involve broadband fixed access, with customers attaching a receiver to their houses, but the telco is very interested in the idea that more advanced versions of WiMax will support high-speed mobile broadband.

"If the potential benefits of WiMax, such as voice services and portability, are realised, then there might be a case for rolling out a WiMax service more widely," said Ian Robinson, head of emerging products at BT Retail, on Thursday.

As previously reported, BT's trials are taking place in Ballingry in Fife, Scotland, Pwllheli in Wales, Porthleven in Cornwall and Campsie in Northern Ireland.

Robinson, who was speaking at the IIR ISP Forum in London, said that BT hopes to launch its radio-broadband service in more rural areas -- although this will need subsidies from local government agencies.

But in the long-term, BT is eyeing up the possibility of offering WiMax services to more than just rural broadband-have-nots.

Its broadband fixed access trials use a version of WiMax known as 802.16d, but a more advanced version is also under development called 802.16e. It supports mobility and should allow laptops and PDAs to connect to a WiMax antenna from a distance of several kilometres, like a mobile phone talking to the nearest base station.

Intel is giving plenty of support to WiMax, in the same way that it aggressively backed Wi-Fi. The chip maker told ZDNet UK this week that it expects to produce 802.16 chips later this year, and that laptops including the technology could go on sale in 2006.

"We will have silicon on it certainly this year. You'll see 802.16 in notebooks, well, it's difficult to say. I think 2006. That's the timeframe I'm comfortable with," said Anand Chandrasekher, vice-president and general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group.

And once users find themselves with a WiMax-enabled device, they'll be looking for a network to which to connect. "If all these laptops are going to be supporting WiMax, then the question for BT is 'who is going to be handling the network side?'," explained Robinson.