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Friday, January 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Industry puts call out over wireless broadband future

Seattle Times technology reporter

SAN JOSE, Calif. — With more people downloading music and video to cellphones and devices, a top Sprint Nextel executive foresees the need for a new wireless broadband technology soon to handle the traffic.

Len Lauer, the company's chief operating officer, told a wireless broadband conference Thursday that a new technology will be critical in a couple of years when the number of subscribers using these applications increases and the company's current network taps out.

It is a "high-class problem," Lauer acknowledged, as wireless subscribers expand use of high-bandwidth applications on the mobile phone, such as gaming, watching TV, sending photos or downloading music.

At current usage rates, the networks can handle most of that traffic; but if the services start to soar in popularity, a new generation will be needed, he said.

It would take growth in subscriber numbers and use of these applications to reach three hours a month to overtax the network, Lauer said.

A likely new technology is WiMax, being showcased at the Wireless Communications Association International conference, where Lauer addressed a crowd of industry leaders working to standardize the technology.

Lauer said Sprint Nextel is considering WiMax among other technologies to solve this problem.

Industry observers consider the company a key front-runner in rolling out a wireless broadband technology because of the spectrum it already owns.

Kirkland-based Clearwire owns the second-most spectrum in the U.S. appropriate for wireless broadband and has rolled out an early version of WiMax in 25 U.S. markets.

Meanwhile, two WiMax standards are under development — even as service providers forge ahead with proprietary equipment. One is for fixed WiMax, which would allow a person to use the service from a stationary spot. The other is a mobile version, which would allow the user to roam.

On Thursday, the WiMax Forum, a nonprofit that promotes and certifies WiMax products, announced the first fixed wireless broadband-network products to achieve true WiMax certification.

The four companies that received certification for products are Aperto Networks, Redline Communications, Sequans Communications and Wavesat.

The timeline for mobile WiMax is not far behind, said Jeff Orr, the forum's director of marketing.

He said interoperability testing could start as soon as August and products could be certified by the end of the year or the beginning of 2007.

Many product vendors said, however, that certified commercial products might not be ready until 2008.

The two conflicting points of view demonstrate the parallel paths occurring in the industry — one group waiting for WiMax standards and another forging ahead with the proprietary equipment.

Lauer said Sprint Nextel plans to begin two WiMax trials this year. A decision on what technology the company will use is likely by the end of the year. Implementation won't occur until 2008.

BellSouth, which provides DSL service in the South, said it planned to send a request to vendors today asking for mobile WiMax products meeting its requirements as soon as possible. It currently offers fixed technology in six markets.

Another mobile technology, WiBro, is being installed in a nationwide network in South Korea.

Clearwire, headed by wireless entrepreneur Craig McCaw, has rolled out service in 25 markets in the U.S. and 16 internationally with equipment from its subsidiary NextNet Wireless in Minneapolis.

"We are working with the industry to evolve the standard, but in the meantime we are meeting the needs of the carriers and rolling out as fast as possible," said Charles Riggle, vice president of business development at NextNet Wireless, which provides equipment to a number of carriers.

"We will have several million subscribers by the time the [mobile WiMax] standard is mature enough to deploy."

Orr said the WiMax Forum has to be careful that it is developing a standard relevant to what is in the market today, which is why it is working closely with the service and equipment providers in South Korea and others.

"It is not uncommon to see individual vendors roll out proprietary technology in advance of the standard. It's better than having a standard and people not following it," Orr said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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