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WiMax to 'cover the UK' within two years

Intel Capital EMEA's managing director claims WiMax will soon be widely available for users of portable devices
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

There will be WiMax coverage across the UK within the next two years, the managing director of Intel Capital EMEA has claimed.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion on Thursday, Ashish Patel said the long-range wireless technology would find an enthusiastic audience among the users of mini-notebooks and other portable web-surfing devices. WiMax is currently only available in very limited deployments in the UK and only in its "fixed" variant, with the prospects for "mobile WiMax" — the type needed for portable devices — depending on upcoming spectrum auctions.

Intel, the most prominent backer of WiMax, is planning to integrate the technology into its upcoming Centrino 2 platform by the end of this year, and is pumping money into companies all along the value chain, from component manufacturers to operators.

On Wednesday, a joint venture in the US was announced, involving Sprint Nextel and Clearwire, with $1bn (£511m) in funding from Intel and similarly large amounts from other players like Google, Comcast and Time Warner. This is the most significant WiMax-related deal to be struck in the developed world, as the technology has thus far proved most useful in countries where wired infrastructure is scarce, making it sensible and cost-efficient to skip straight to a high-bandwidth, wireless alternative like WiMax.

The Western European market will prove particularly tricky for WiMax because — unlike the US — the market is already full of entrenched 3G users. However, according to Patel, WiMax is not going to be a "competitor to 3G or DSL" — rather it will form a new market — and all the technologies can happily co-exist. On the subject of the sudden increase in 3G dongle usage in the UK, Patel said the trend "validates the market for mobile data" but said he was "convinced that, at some point, 3G will not be able to cope from a backhaul [and general traffic-management] perspective".

"[3G operators] will need huge levels of new base stations or they will have to partner with WiMax and offer 3G solutions for specific [voice-related applications]," said Patel. The former approach is unlikely to happen, as European operators have already stated they want to put up far fewer new base stations. The long-term evolution (LTE) of 3G, Patel said, was "at least two to three years out before it can happen", and would not be significantly cheaper than investment in WiMax because it would also require operators to "rip out and replace their entire 3G networks".

"WiMax will cover the UK nationally in the next 18 to 24 months," Patel claimed. Intel is an investor in the UK WiMax company Freedom4 — Patel even sits on the board — but he stressed that this coverage will not necessarily be through just one company.

Another hurdle for mobile WiMax is spectrum allocation in the 2.5GHz band, something that will become possible through an Ofcom auction later this year. Patel said he was confident that spectrum would be obtained for the WiMax industry, but "not totally confident yet about the quantity of spectrum [that will be obtained]".

On the processor side, Intel is banking on its upcoming Atom chip to power a new generation of ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) and low-cost subnotebooks like the Asus Eee PC. "Intel has to step behind this and make devices connected to allow not only a form of 4G but a form factor that will induce consumers to use these sorts of devices," he said.

However, UMPCs have already been around for a few years and have not yet gained much adoption outside the early-adopter, business-user community, possibly because of high-cost, unusual form-factor and input-related usability issues.

Asked how long he gave the UMPC to survive as a design concept, Patel said cost was a major issue. "For that market to really take off, you need a lower price point," he said, adding that the devices were currently being targeted at the wrong audience. He said they should be pitched as low-cost, web-surfing "toys" for consumers to use while watching TV.

Patel also said that the second generation of Atom processors, due to arrive next year and promising lower power consumption, might make its way into smartphones, but the first generation of Atom processors would only appear in mobile internet devices (MIDs) and low-cost subnotebooks.

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