Nortel takes its place in WiMax universe

Equipment vendor announces several multiple WiMax-based projects

Lest Nortel Networks be left out of the growing WiMax fanfare, the networking vendor announced today it will offer PC cards and USB dongles to allow WiMax connectivity to laptops, among other products.

Nortel did not win a coveted role as a network equipment provider to the Sprint Nextel Corp. Xohm offering for WiMax, which will provide broadband wireless nationwide starting next year. That principle role went to Motorola Inc. and others.

But Nortel nonetheless made it known this week at WiMax World that it considers mobile WiMax hugely important for its future and that of many different end customers globally. Those customers range from individual consumers and workers to governments and service providers.

Nortel set up one of the biggest booths at WiMax World on the show floor, and announced yesterday that it is working with the Choctaw Electric Cooperative and Pine Cellular to bring WiMax to southeastern Oklahoma and other rural areas where it is not economically feasible to build a wired network.

On Tuesday, Nortel said it is working with ITT Corp. to jointly pursue mobile WiMax for use in a satellite-based air traffic control system for the Federal Aviation Administration. ITT won a $207 million contract from the FAA in August for the control system, which is set for deployment in 2009.

In yet another token of its commitment to the technology, Nortel demonstrated unified communications over WiMax at the conference. The demonstration used Nortel's WiMax infrastructure and Communication Server along with Microsoft Office Communications Server to initiate a phone call with one click from a soft phone.

Nortel also showed bright green laptops used in the One Laptop Per Child campaign championed by Nicholas Negroponte to show their Wi-Fi wireless capability. Scott Wickware, vice president of carrier networks for Nortel, said those laptops will eventually be WiMax capable, and predicted that just about any Wi-Fi device will become WiMax capable as chip sets evolve.

"The principle we have is that anything Wi-Fi will be WiMax eventually," Wickware said in an interview. Nortel has also launched a marketing campaign based on the idea of "hyperconnectivity," which he described as anything that can be connected wirelessly, will be connected that way.

Peter MacKinnon, general manager of WiMax at Nortel, said in a keynote address that one of the more public uses of WiMax will be seen with the use of WiMax along a high-speed train between Fort Worth and Dallas, first announced in March.

But what is likely to drive the popularity of WiMax is individual devices that work with the technology, such as laptops equipped with WiMax chips from Intel Corp., MacKinnon said.

"We're still finding out how people will use WiMax. There's an element of the unknown and of let's see what happens," said Wickware, noting the variety of customers Nortel is working with to deploy WiMax. So far, he admitted, "Sprint has been the most vocal about the business, and certainly all eyes are on Sprint. ... If Sprint does a good job with Xohm, it helps everybody in the industry."

"Sprint has bet the company on WiMax," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston. Sprint's interest in WiMax has helped Motorola directly, but Nortel will still be a WiMax player, Kerravala said. By contrast, major networking vendor Cisco Systems Inc. does not have a WiMax strategy, he noted, and did not have a booth at WiMax World.

Wickware said Nortel's focus on WiMax this week does not mean the company is disregarding other Fourth Generation wireless technologies, such as Long Term Evolution. "We're starting to make investments in LTE," he said.

LTE is similar to WiMax because both specifications are based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing technology and use Multiple-input, multiple-output antennas, he noted. Verizon Wireless has expressed interest in using LTE technology for its 4G rollouts, but Wickware noted that LTE is still three years from adoption.

"Despite Sprint's launch, there are still a lot of unknowns with WiMax," Wickware said. "But we think once the technology is out there, you'll find there is a lot more interest."

The WiMax World show in Chicago saw a 50% jump in attendance and sponsors over last year, according to the organizer of the conference, Trendsmedia. In all, about 8,000 people attended this year and more than 350 companies sponsored or exhibited. Since 2004, the conference has grown tenfold, said Eliot Weinman, president of Trendsmedia. About 70% of this year's exhibitors plan to return to next year's show, also in Chicago, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 2008.

"We in the industry truly believe 2008 will be the breakout year for this technology," Weinman said in a statement.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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