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January 22, 2006

US seeks first-mover advantage with WiMAX licensing

The US government plans to start licensing spectrum this year for wireless broadband services based on the recently ratified 802.16e WiMAX standard, aiming to stay "one or two steps ahead of other countries," according to an official from the DoC.

By CBR Staff Writer

Michael Gallaher, assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, last week told an industry gathering in California that the Bush administration was looking at several frequency bands for licenses, including the 700MHz band, with a view to providing universal, affordable access for broadband by 2007.

Pre-standard implementations of 802.16e have all been in the 2.5, 3.5 and 5.8GHz bands, but it is adaptable, and could be adapted to work in the 1.71 and 2.11GHz ranges Washington is thought to favor for licensing this year. By 2008, the 700MHz band, which is currently used by analog TV, will become available for licensing as the States moves to digital television, due to be the only option for viewers by the following year.

As a wireless WAN technology, WiMAX is a potential competitor to cellular. Qualcomm spent quite a bit of time last year badmouthing the technology quite publicly (one of their top execs has a white paper entitled WhyMAX?). Operators too are unhappy at the prospect of new competitors to HSDPA (3.5G in the GSM world) or EV-DO (the equivalent in CDMA), particularly if they don’t pay a small fortune for the licenses as 3G licensees had to in Germany and the UK.

Despite its detractors, however, WiMAX has one really important backer: Intel, whose decision to offer Centrino as embedded WiFi on all laptops really put wireless LAN on the map. Cisco has also said it is keeping an eye on WiMAX, and companies from the IT side of the business see it as a way into mobility, which until now has been dominated by companies from the telecoms world.

The mobile WiMAX standard, 802.16e, was ratified last month by the IEEE. That the US is moving to license spectrum is interesting. While on one hand it may be seeking first-mover advantage, on the other the government may be rubbing its hands together about the potential for stellar license fees.

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