Emerging WiMax technology takes aim at fast-moving target
The GMC Yukon Denali that Adaptix showed off yesterday could have been straight out of MTV's "Pimp My Ride," but it's what you couldn't...
Seattle Times technology reporter
VANCOUVER, B.C. — The GMC Yukon Denali that Adaptix showed off yesterday could have been straight out of MTV's "Pimp My Ride," but it's what you couldn't see that counted.
The Seattle-based startup outfitted the SUV with equipment to show off a version of WiMax, an emerging wireless broadband technology that promises high-speed and high-bandwidth Internet access.
Through that invisible connection, passengers could download a large digital file, make a phone call and watch a movie all at the same time.
The demonstration took place at an industry conference put on by the WiMax Forum, which is working to implement the technology first at fixed locations and later in a mobile environment. While most of the companies attending the show are developing the fixed version, Adaptix demonstrated a very early version of the latter.
The nearly weeklong event is designed to encourage compatibility of equipment across vendors to drive costs down.
Members of the forum are using the occasion to demonstrate how WiMax will work once it is commercialized, expected at the end of the year. They also want to debunk the notion that supporters have overpromised on the technology.
"There's been a lot of hype. This demonstrates that the systems are real," said Jeff Orr, director of Market Strategy at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim, which builds wireless equipment. It currently supplies antennas to the Washington State Ferry system for Wi-Fi.
WiMax is similar to the widely accepted Wi-Fi standard, except that it provides coverage over larger areas and can handle multiple users and multiple applications at the same time. By contrast, Wi-Fi is more like a megaphone, where the person closest to the source gets the best service.
Yesterday, Redline Communications, based in Markham, Ontario, demonstrated how the technology could manage streaming video, phone calls over the Internet and multi-player gaming using the Xbox console — all at the same time.
Redline makes the equipment necessary to send and receive the signal. In the demo, a base station connected to the Internet blasted a signal across the table to an antenna. An Ethernet cable connected the antenna to the computer, the phone and the Xbox to complete the connection.
Quality didn't suffer even when users made a phone call, watched a movie and played the Xbox simultaneously. "You can see how close and legitimate WiMax is," said Keith Doucet, Redline's vice president of marketing and product management.
Some companies have started selling equipment, calling it the precursor to WiMax or pre-WiMax. Seattle-based Speakeasy deployed a network off the Space Needle recently, and Kirkland-based Clearwire has consumer deployments in a number of towns across the U.S. and world.
But industry standards for fixed WiMax were only recently completed and a test lab in Spain will begin to certify equipment this month. Under this system, companies would submit their equipment to make sure it works with that from other companies, following guidelines set up by the WiMax Forum.
It is not known how people will use the technology. Broadband in the form of DSL and cable is already widely available to the home, while Wi-Fi is available in designated areas. In addition, wireless carriers are beginning to roll out so-called 3G technology across the country. All of this means WiMax will have to find its own niche to succeed.
Many believe that will happen first in rural areas, where DSL and cable aren't readily available. Wireless carriers can also use it as a complement to 3G.
Regardless of the applications, Orr said revenues are expected to hit between $2 billion and $5 billion by 2009. Today, pre-WiMax is generating about $500 million in equipment sales.
Adaptix took the demos a step further yesterday by showing the mobile version of WiMax, which isn't due to be standardized until next year, and not commercially available until 2007. But Leigh Fatzinger, Adaptix's executive director of marketing, said, "We would prefer not to wait."
In its demonstration, Adaptix dangled an antenna off the 26th floor of a downtown Vancouver hotel. Then it outfitted the six-passenger Yukon Denali with three 15-inch flat panel screens, a laptop, three computers, a user terminal and an external antenna the size of a plastic soft-drink bottle cap.
The computers achieved download speeds of about 1.5 megabits per second as the vehicle traveled 40 miles per hour. They could also handle Internet phone calls and stream the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The signal faded and the streaming stopped when the vehicle was more than a mile from the antenna.
Adaptix, which has about 25 employees in its Seattle headquarters, plans to sell the equipment and software to a service provider, which would install access points at different locations to maintain the connection.
Fatzinger said he envisions numerous uses for the technology, including sending doctors an X-ray of a patient in an ambulance before arriving at the hospital or public-utility crews downloading maps while on the road.
Although the point of the conference was to focus on the fixed standard, Fatzinger said it is worth talking about what's possible down the road.
"Mobility is the future. Anywhere, anytime, any device," he said.
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org