Cisco's WiMax Focus is International

Cisco Systems sees a big market for WiMax, but not primarily in high-profile deployments in the developed world such as Sprint Nextel's nationwide network, planned for commercial launch in the U.S. next year.

Cisco's acquisition of Navini Networks, expected to close in January, will make it a vendor of wireless radios to carriers for the first time, even though it has been selling the infrastructure behind all kinds of radios for several years. The prospect of getting in early on a market transition was one thing that made WiMax attractive, according to Brett Galloway, vice president and general manager of Cisco's wireless networking business unit.

But the main opportunity Cisco sees is in building networks in developing countries, initially to bring broadband to stationary users, company executives said this week at the annual C-Scape analyst conference in San Jose, California. That's a long way from the vision of mobility that Intel and other big backers of WiMax promoted for several years. Even an Intel executive on a panel with the Cisco executives played up WiMax as an alternative to DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable broadband. That's likely to be the role of WiMax for the foreseeable future in markets with poor or no wired infrastructure, said Sriram Viswanathan, general manager of the WiMax Program Office at Intel Capital. But he's not giving up on mobile WiMax there.

"We see that as almost an entry step for these markets to get onto the mobility bandwagon," Viswanathan said.

The carriers in developing countries are insisting on gear based on IEEE 802.16e, the standard for mobile WiMax, rather than on an earlier specification limited to fixed services, said Roger Dorf, president and CEO of Navini. They want the capability to eventually offer a mobile service, especially because many such carriers have both wired and wireless divisions, he said. But right now, Cisco sees WiMax giving many residents of poorer countries, who overwhelmingly still use desktop PCs, their first broadband experience. Desktops will dominate those markets for the next two years, in Dorf's view.

Cisco isn't dismissing WiMax for advanced countries, just identifying the most attractive market to start with, Galloway said. However, the executives don't see much potential in unlicensed WiMax, such as deployments across large enterprise campuses. The unlicensed variety will remain a niche product, primarily for point-to-point backhaul links, Galloway said.

Mobile WiMax is designed so it can be used without an external antenna or gateway box, so a user should be able to take a notebook or other portable device anywhere in the network's coverage area and connect. But some analysts say this "nomadic" capability is a far cry from the true mobility that cellular technologies have been designed to deliver from the beginning. WiMax will complement but not compete with future high-speed versions of 3G systems, namely LTE (Long-Term Evolution), the next step in the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) technology track, according to Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates.

Cisco isn't taking sides in the next-generation radio fight, said Larry Lang, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Services and Mobility Business Unit. Cisco will win in any case because it supplies the IP (Internet Protocol) packet infrastructure that will link different access networks together, he said.

The company does see an affinity between WiMax and Wi-Fi, where it is a dominant player. Both are IP-based and standardized, and no one company has dominated innovation in either technology, Galloway said. Simply the advent of a new type of portable broadband experience is good news for the network giant.

"If we drive innovation on end devices and applications, and we drive the penetration and ubiquity of networks ... we create enormous value for Cisco ... for the ecosystem ... and for our customers," Galloway said.

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