By Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter
Intel foresees a bright future for Wimax in rural areas, developing countries and as a successor to wi-fi.
Wimax could bring broadband to rural areas
The technology may not be familiar to many, but Intel wants to put it firmly on the global broadband map.
For developing nations, with poor fixed communication infrastructure, Wimax could offer a vital link to the digital world.
Providing the silicon for Wimax modems is an important first step in its journey from pipedream to reality.
Filling the gaps
There have already been around 100 trials of the technology around the world and products are likely to be commercially available within two years.
Wimax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) has, on paper, a lot going for it.
Theoretically it can provide data rates of up to 70 mbps over distances of up to 50 km, although its actual range is dictated by many variables, including topography, environmental conditions and network capacity.
Hyped by many as a successor to wi-fi, it also has a vital role to play alongside the fixed broadband technologies of DSL and cable.
This role is best summed up as a hole-filler, plugging gaps left by DSL and cable, providing a lifeline to those in rural areas and countries with poor fixed communications infrastructure and opening up the net to a whole new generation of users.
Next billion users
In the UK, BT has already put the technology through its paces in four trials in remote areas in Cornwall, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
It was tested in difficult environmental conditions and the feedback from users was good, according to Chet Patel, BT's general manager of internet access products.
It could become a crucial technology in ensuring 100% broadband access across the UK, he said.
BT will eventually offer Wimax in the form of an off-the-shelf self-install modem, similar to its plug-and-play DSL service which helped kick-start broadband take-up when it was launched in 2002.
Wimax products will become available in around 18 months time and modems - with a manufacture cost of £100 - are likely to be subsidised by net service providers.
The chip currently being launched by Intel is specifically aimed at the fixed wireless market and it is optimistic about the impact it can have here.
Wireless technology and satellite often becomes sidelined as "other technologies" in pie-charts where the lion's share of take-up goes to DSL and cable.
Intel is betting on this changing. "This category of other represents the next billion users," said Scott Richardson, general manager of Intel's broadband wireless division.
Wimax could eventually supersede wi-fi
But others doubt whether Wimax can ever be a real competitor to DSL and cable.
"Wimax will come into its own in places like Ireland, central and eastern Europe, Portugal, Estonia and Africa," said Ian Fogg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.
But he is sceptical that it can compete in areas where traditional broadband technologies are more widely available.
This is down to speed. While DSL and cable providers are already offering up to 8 mbps, Wimax will not realistically go much beyond 10 mbps when it is debuted in the next 18 months, Mr Fogg predicted.
Where Wimax has a brighter future and where Mr Fogg sees Intel's interest in the technology really lying, is as a successor to wi-fi.
This flavour of Wimax, which will see the technology deployed on laptops and handheld devices, is currently under construction and when it is ready will be a natural successor to wi-fi.
This is some way off though.
"It will take five to 10 years for Wimax to be spread around the country and during this time, wi-fi will continue to be very important," said Jonathon Pagget, chief operating officer of Airspan, a wireless equipment manufacturer.
Eventually though, Wimax will overshadow wi-fi.
"Where today you see wi-fi, tomorrow you will see Wimax," said Mr Richardson.
Farther out, he envisaged Wimax working hand-in-hand with 3G and other high-speed technologies to provide a "personal broadband" possibly in the form of a pocket modem that can connect a multitude of devices wherever the user happens to be.