WiMAX-based Centrino devices limited to three cities this year

When Intel ships its Echo Peak wireless module later this year, the company will meet its stated goal of adding WiMAX as an option to its Centrino 2 laptop chip platform in 2008. But shipments of Centrino 2 laptops equipped with WiMAX support will be very small this year, likely constrained to just three U.S. cities.

And because of the frequency bands in use for Canadian WiMAX networks, it may be some time before we see the devices here.

Intel has long said shipments of Centrino laptops equipped with WiMAX would be limited this year, even as it promised such systems would be offered by a range of big-name laptop vendors. It’s now clear just how limited those shipments will be.

Only the U.S. will see WiMAX-based Centrino 2 laptops hit the market this year, said Rupal Shah, director of marketing at Intel Asia-Pacific, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday. WiMAX-based laptops will only be available in markets outside the U.S. next year, once demand for such systems materializes, she said.

The reason is related to the range of spectrum used by WiMAX operators in different countries. WiMAX networks operate on different spectrum bands — 2.3GHz, 2.5GHz and 3.5Ghz. The biggest and most established WiMAX services are in South Korea, which uses the 2.3GHz spectrum, and Pakistan, which uses 3.5GHz. Neither of these spectrum bands are supported by Echo Peak — and it’s not clear when Intel will add support for these bands in Centrino 2.

Intel backed the 2.5GHz spectrum for its availability in different countries and for technical reasons. For example, radio waves carry farther at lower frequencies, which means fewer base stations are required for a 2.5GHz network than a 3.5GHz network, reducing an operator’s equipment costs.

While Canada’s largest pre-WiMAX broadband wireless network, Inukshuk Wireless — a Rogers WirelessBell Mobility partnership — operates in the 2.5GHz band, most other Canadian wireless broadband networks operate in the 3.5GHz band, including those from Northwestel Inc., Mipps Inc. and Pathcom Wireless Inc.

U.S. operator Clearwire plans to launch 2.5GHz WiMAX services this year. The company’s Xohm service aims to start operations in Baltimore, Md., in September, followed by Chicago and Washington, D.C., before the end of the year. These are the cities where Centrino 2-based laptops will likely be made available first.

Intel has a significant stake in Clearwire. The chip maker invested US$1 billion in Clearwire during May along with a promise to market the Xohm service alongside its “performance notebook PC brand,” an apparent reference to Centrino 2. The company also holds stakes in other WiMAX operators around the world.

In addition to Clearwire’s WiMAX rollout plans, Taiwan’s Vmax Telecom reportedly plans to roll out a commercial 2.5GHz WiMAX service before the end of this year, but Centrino 2 laptops with built-in support for the technology will not be available in Taiwan before 2009. Other Taiwanese operators expect to roll out 2.5GHz WiMAX services next year.

Intel’s Shah said the availability of Centrino 2 laptops with WiMAX will expand as more 2.5GHz WiMAX services are rolled out. But given the very early stage these services are in, it’s questionable whether these WiMAX-based systems will ship in significant volumes — that might have to wait for the next version of Centrino, called Calpella, which Intel plans to release next year.

Intel has not released a shipment forecast for Echo Peak.

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