BARCELONA, Spain ~ Later this year an unfamiliar radiowave will blanket five US cities when a new wireless internet service backed by some of the biggest technology groups in the world begins its advance from a niche in Asia to the rest of the world.
WiMAX, the latest acronym invented by the telecommunications industry, is a sort of ultra-powerful wireless internet service that has created a splash at cellphone trade show 3GSM this year.
It offers quicker downloading speeds at home and creates constant wireless coverage in cities, which will eventually allow subscribers to connect to the internet with their cellphones wherever they are.
Wireless high-speed internet is now commonplace in hotel lobbies, airports and homes thanks to Wi-Fi technology, which enables computers to connect to the internet via a signal sent by a transmitter.
The main drawback of Wi-Fi is its short range, requiring users to go to “hotspots” within about 100 meters of a transmitter.
“With Wifi you have to go to a hotspot, but with WiMAX you’ll be able to connect anywhere and at a higher bandwidth than before,” said Barbara Lopez, marketing manager for Intel’s dedicated WiMAX division, Intel WiMAX.
The US chipmaker is part of a consortium of companies pushing WiMAX that includes hardware and handset makers Nokia and Motorola, South Korean electronics group Samsung and US telecom group Sprint.
WiMAX transmitters typically send a signal for about 10 kilometers, but the range can reach a maximum 20 kilometers.
Sprint, a leading US telecom group that has invested US$3 billion in WiMAX, is to launch the service before the end of the year in Chicago, the Washington/Baltimore area, plus Texan cities Austin, Houston and Dallas.
The technology is already in place in South Korea, under the name WiBro, making the country something of a trailblazer.
The Taiwanese government has also provided funding for the development of WiMAX and telecoms group Chunghwa Telecom plans to use it to provide wireless internet for about a third of the island’s population.
Sprint, whose interest in WiMAX is shared by US wireless broadband provider Clearwire, has plans to extend the service deeper into the US next year, but a company spokesperson declined to specify which cities were to be targeted.
The interest in the technology poses an obvious threat to established mobile network operators that have spent billions of dollars developing and buying licenses for 3G, or third-generation cellphone services.
3G is a rival technology allowing users to access the internet through their cellphones, allowing instant messaging and downloads.
Underlining the anxiety of established companies, the daily 3GSM newsletter here ran a headline “We must work faster to beat WiMAX” on Wednesday, quoting Arun Sarin, chief executive of Vodafone, the world’s biggest cellphone network operator.
He urged operators to press ahead with building 3G LTE, a faster version of existing 3G technology.
“Right now if you put WiMAX and 3G LTE together, WiMAX is a step ahead,” said an analyst at the IDC research group, Joao da Silva, pointing to the increasing commercial deployment of WiMAX.
He said WiMAX offered opportunities for new operators in developed markets, which could lead to more competition.
“It will most certainly be alternative operators that invest in WiMAX,” added da Silva.
As with most new telecom technologies, however, it will take a while for the equipment makers and consumers to catch up with the industry’s enthusiasm for a new idea.
There are currently few mobile handsets on the market capable of receiving the WiMAX signal.
A South Korean group launched a handset at the end of last year and Nokia plans to launch a WiMAX-enabled phone, based on its N900 tablet model, for about $400 in the first half of next year.
“There are two major difficulties. One is the mobile device issue; the other is that the technology is new so we need to wait for it to mature,” said the chief technology officer of South Korean group SK Telecom, SeHyun Oh.
SK Telecom, the biggest mobile group in South Korea, and rival KT have led investment in WiMAX in their country. About one sixth of capital city Seoul is covered by the SK network.
Insiders speak about a new WiMAX world when all electronic devices are capable of connecting to the internet, when digital cameras send photos over the internet rather than store them on memory and when the internet on cellphones or on laptop computers is just a click away on buses or in cars.
“We’re not sure what will happen, but the ability to connect any place will be a big change,” said Lopez of Intel.