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First mobile tests plus a wireless county

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Every week brings new real world trials of WiMAX standards, raising expectations of an earlier boom than anticipated once Intel and Fujitsu roll out their low cost silicon in early 2004.

This week, we have one of the first trials of the upcoming mobile version of WiMAX, 802.16e, and Intel backing what could be the first WiMAX county in the US. Nomad Digital Rail (NDR) is testing on-train Wi-Fi and 802.16e systems in the UK and claims that most train operators have expressed interest in its system, not just for business applications but for delivering on-board entertainment such as television, for security functions such as remote surveillance, and for monitoring vehicle conditions such as heating. NDR is looking to use the mobile version of WiMAX, 802.16e, in future deployments to deliver the same applications at higher speed than Wi-Fi, although it will roll out 802.11 until the ‘e’ variant is standardized.

The ideal will be integration of station-based Wi-Fi hotspots with 802.16e in the train itself, since the faster standard is optimized for moving vehicles, and can provide lower cost backhaul than satellite.

The communications engine for the Nomad system has been developed by the UK’s Brand Communications. This automatically manages data devices and aggregates bandwidth from whatever is in range along a given route, whether this is cellular, Wi-Fi, microwave or satellite.

The system monitors performance and integrity of each data pipe to optimize its use and provides roaming between different systems. Finally, the engine has a web optimizer that ensures that heavy graphics are optimized for wireless connections. Nomad estimates that, with a projected 3.8m Wi-Fi users in the UK by 2006, and over 1bn rail journeys being made, the market for its services should grow steadily.

Across the pond, Houston County, Georgia, is poised to be the first county in the US to have blanket wireless coverage using WiMAX technology. Intel is backing the project and, if it comes to fruition, will use Houston as a proof of concept for the WiMAX technology it is promoting so assiduously. Terry Smithson, education marketing manager at Intel, said a successful roll-out in Houston could lead to WiMAX-based services being extended to large areas of Georgia. "I would like to highlight Georgia nationally as a state that other states should look to to move into a wireless model," he said. There are still many details to be hammered out, not least who will pay the $2m bill for building communications towers and setting up the business systems, which is likely to be split between the municipal authority and local businesses that can make use of the service.

Intel is likely to provide the equipment via one of its WiMAX solutions partners and will provide experts to help set up the system. The county will also have to find an internet service provider. Local councils will vote on whether to give the project the go-ahead in the next couple of weeks.

Smithson said coverage for the whole county is likely to require two towers, each with a 30 mile radius, and pricing would be around $15 to $30 a month for end users, plus a $25 PC card. Intel has chosen Houston to be its prospective WiMAX flagship because it is in an area with many hi-tech companies and military contractors, and because of a recent project with the county local high school. Intel donated a $30,000 wireless technology laboratory to the school and has carried out various education-oriented tests there using tablet PCs and other technology.

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