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« Airports and Tenants Contend over Spectrum Rights | Main | Farmers Grow Backsides with Wi-Fi »

June 18, 2004

Alvarion Says Pre-WiMax Means WiMax Commitment

alvarion logoAlvarion VP says that the company's new platform is ready for WiMax, backed by their promise to upgrade it: A few weeks ago, I wrote about Alvarion's BreezeMax platform and took the company to task for not spelling out precisely what they were promising customers when saying that BreezeMax was their WiMax platform. WiMax hasn't reached a final certification stage yet for equipment that complies to IEEE 802.16a: broadband wireless point-to-point service in the 2 GHz to 11 GHz range for licensed and unlicensed bands. That certification standard might not be ready until 2005; likewise, chips designed for it could be that far ahead, too.

I wrote in May that Alvarion should have said We're not selling WiMax equipment, but something we believe we be so close to it that only firmware upgrades are required. I also wrote, Interestingly, while they say futureproofed on one page, they don't mention whether purchasers would receive free hardware upgrades if the WiMax standard as deployed is too different to allow firmware changes to this equipment.

Alvarion wanted to clarify what they meant, and I spoke today with Carlton O'Neal, the vice president of marketing for the company. I asked O'Neal if Alvarion is guaranteeing its customers--as a few other firms have apparently done in a limited way--that BreezeMax would be a WiMax upgrade when the final standard was available. He said it would. (Note: An earlier version of this story said it was zero-cost. That is incorrect. Alvarion later clarified that customers would pay a negotiated fee when the WiMax upgrade was available. Cost will depend on the extent of the software or hardware upgrades.)

O'Neal said that the company had built the platform to allow software upgrades, firmware upgrades, and hardware upgrades. They believe that with the current state of the WiMax standard they can entirely rely on software and firmware to handle full WiMax certification: "Our hope, our plan, is that it's software and firmware," he said. Their last resort would be hardware, but "we're prepared to do that."

Alvarion has been developing the BreezeMax system for three years, and decided that given the state of WiMax and their own readiness, they needed to bring the carrier-grade equipment into the marketplace with a commitment to make this their flagship WiMax platform even though the standard is still under development. What they deploy today works, and some of their customers may choose to stick with it far past when interoperable WiMax hardware and their own upgrades are available.

Alvarion will eventually rely on chips built by Intel to power their WiMax gear, and Intel's circuits aren't due until 2005 at this point. But Alvarion is confident that they've made the right choice in hitting the market. "Right now, this box is good enough to be WiMax for everything we know, and the closure path from everything we know to certification is small," O'Neal said.

O'Neal said that as a public company, Alvarion has to pick its promises and its wording carefully, and he has resisted efforts by his staff to put prefixes and suffixes on the term WiMax because he said the company doesn't want to maintain that their equipment is something it's not. They eventually decided on calling it "pre-WiMax" because of their knowledge of the standard and their commitment in upgrading to a WiMax-certified system.

O'Neal said that at least a couple of Alvarion competitors, which he declined to name, had declared that their existing equipment was WiMax "like" or WiMax "ready" when it lacks some of the basic commonalities with the 802.16 and in-progress WiMax certification standards.

Thus, O'Neal said, Alvarion is only moving forward with its new platform as a WiMax-based product. "We will not play liar's poker" in terms of attaching a standards name to products that aren't close to it or won't be upgraded to meet the eventual certification.

In the past, I've criticized firms that are using the term WiMax to refer to equipment that simply provides point-to-point broadband wireless from a central location to a customer receiver. Just like Wi-Fi isn't just anything, but it's a rigidly defined and tested process for interoperable 2.4 and 5 GHz Part 15 data networking gear, so, too, is WiMax not a generic term but a way to create a pool of devices that compete on performance and specs, not on incompatible standards.

More clarification from companies like Alvarion that are promising a WiMax migration with the purchase of existing product lines for fully interoperable and compliant equipment should remove the ability of firms to capitalize on the name but not deliver the goods. Along those lines, it's surprising that the nascent WiMax Forum isn't fighting harder against dilution of their trademark.