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Intel hypes WiMAX to the sky in Brazil

A man in a van would do

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Column It is over five years since two LocustWorld staff set up a satellite van in a Yorkshire Dales village, and provided wireless internet to local users who couldn't get ADSL.

And half a decade later, Intel took 60 employees, a satellite link, and a 300-foot WiMAX tower to achieve much the same thing.

The story of how the WiMAX hype machine reached Parintins, an island in the Amazon River, is getting people from Associated Press to the San Jose Mercury excited.

The Mercury's Dean Takahashi quoted Oscar Clarke, general manager for Intel Brazil: "If we can be successful here, we will replicate this in other isolated communities around the world where electricity and telecommunications are unreliable. If Parintins can do it, it can be done anywhere."

If Takahashi or Alan Clendenning at the Associated Press feel any scepticism about the need to devote 60 people and a huge civil engineering project to achieve what mesh companies like Strix, Tropos and LocustWorld have been achieving with single volunteers in Ghana, Florida, Italy, and several South American countries for the last five years, the scepticism is well hidden.

Clendenning reports that "overall, Intel will spend $1bn over the next five years with its World Ahead Programme", which was started earlier this year and "aims to help close the digital divide between developed and developing nations".

That could indeed be the aim. It could also be the case that the aim is to hype a very ordinary wireless technology in which Intel has a huge stake, by getting non-specialist media to write enthusiastic stories about achievements which are neither new, nor sustainable without heavy promotional subsidy.

Don't expect the scepticism to appear widely, even if it is felt (as it is) at board level inside a lot of blue chip wireless corporations. Intel, even if you discount the huge influence it exerts at a commercial level, is a powerful investor.

Intel Capital has holdings in a vast spread of high-tech companies and, while there is almost certainly never any overt pressure on these companies to support Intel corporate policy, the giant corporation doesn't bother to hide its influence:

"Since 1991, Intel Capital has invested more than $4bn in approximately 1,000 companies in more than 30 countries. In that time, about 160 portfolio companies have been acquired by other companies and another 150 have gone public on various exchanges around the world. Last year alone, Intel Capital invested more than $130m in about 110 deals with approximately 40 per cent of its investments made outside the United States."

The result is that many directors of significant technology companies will express their private astonishment at the level of hype being generated by Intel for WiMAX - but will make it very clear that they will not go "on the record" with criticisms. They regard such public statements as "unhelpful" in their relations with Santa Clara.

The result is that statements like "WiMAX delivers wireless access over long distances and is suited for remote places that don't have an established infrastructure of power lines or telephone poles", are routinely inserted into apparently authoritative AP stories.

These will be printed, without any comment to the effect that ordinary Wi-Fi links with directional antennae costing a few dollars have covered distances of up to 100 miles, with the same bandwidth; or that new wireless technologies and modulation schemes like xG's xMax can offer significantly higher bandwidth, or that huge infrastructures already established with 3G, could easily be upgraded with technology such as Qualcomm's Flarion Flash-OFDM to provide genuine, standards-based mobile internet broadband.

If you want to start off investigating WiMAX, don't read just the technical exposés. You will find any number of consultants prepared to do White Papers about WiMAX, in the hope (and not unreasonable expectation) of selling copies of their reports to Intel and Intel's partners. You'll also, to be fair, find people running seminars challenging this. But more interesting, perhaps, would be a history of the Korean WiBro technology.

WiBro is actually a variant of WiMAX. It is, often, represented as a huge example of what WiMAX can achieve "if only it were standardised" - but in fact, it goes well beyond what WiMAX does by being genuinely mobile. WiMAX mobile is a standard still in committee; WiBro mobile has been "in the field" for years.

"The difference," said a senior executive in San Diego who might, or might not have good trading connections with Qualcomm, "is that the Koreans decided not to wait for Intel. At first Intel was very supportive of WiBro, but when the Koreans decided to have their own standard, Intel withdrew that support, and started hyping its own variant."

Is WiBro very successful? Common myth says yes. In fact, the actual live deployment of WiBro devices is hard to assess - another way of saying it doesn't show up on any radar from outside Korea. Does it do things that other wireless technologies cannot do? Myth again, says yes. In reality, a technology which really could do the things attributed to WiBro would not be ignored by other markets.

The main benefit of WiMAX is that Intel is using its power in world standards areas to find a universal spectrum for it. That means that if Intel WiMAX becomes a standard, and works well, then a WiMAX-equipped laptop will work in America, Korea, Amazonia, or Antarctica. It will probably be at 2.5 GHz, because Intel has identified that as a frequency band which can be bought, assigned or even hijacked by de facto standardisation, in almost every country in the world.

And it will not be blocked by unlicensed operations. That alone is enough to make those who doubt or even dispute Intel's marketing of WiMAX, keep their silence. Wi-Fi is seriously vulnerable to the fact that anybody can start a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi transceiver anywhere, blotting out other users. Rogue WiMAX stations can (in theory, at least) be hunted down and prosecuted where an ordinary 802.11(pre-N) Wi-Fi station will be invulnerable - if Intel gets the spectrum universally accepted.

For Intel, the benefit is that all its PC motherboards can include a WiMAX wireless device "free" with the processor - a marketing ploy. Intel reasons that the Centrino campaign shows just how many PC notebooks this can sell - and it reckons that the same idea, if the idea is extended to areas away from the home WLAN or Starbucks hotspot, would be a best-seller.

When WiMAX 2.5 GHz is jammed there are vacant bands above 3.0 GHz which can be used. So there's no need to doubt that WiMAX, as envisioned by Intel, will "work" - what is at issue is whether an Intel-owned standard is the best for the world.

The World Ahead campaign, achieved at the sort of cost Intel is pumping into it, is no such thing. It's the Intel Ahead campaign. If you like what it does, then by all means buy the hype. But let's call it by its true name. ®

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