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WiMAX, or the 802.16 standard, is meant to do for the Internet what cell phones did for making telephone calls. Soon, Internet access will span for miles with the help of a series of towers delivering connectivity. Unfortunately, the idea has been sloshing around in the murky depths of standards development for years.

This has been dragging on so long, in fact, that companies such as Clearwire and California’s NextWeb have already built substantial profit margins by offering complicated “pre-WiMAX” technology services which are scaled down versions of WiMAX that constrict data rates and end-user mobility.

But, last week, WiMAX finally hit the big time. Intel announced that it’s beginning worldwide shipments of its PRO/Wireless 5116 hardware, which means commercial WiMAX trials are about to start popping up by the end of the year.

This isn’t the first release of WiMAX hardware, but it does signal the most significant advancement as of yet. The chipmaker will be working with Clearwire to act as a service provider, but numerous other media companies are on board to be WiMAX service carriers. Using the pre-WiMAX technologies already in place, wholly developed ecosystems (as Intel likes to call them) of devices, users, towers and multiple service carriers should be emerging by the end of 2006.

But one has to wonder how this set up will take place.

In large cities, where it’s easy enough to prop a tower on a building, WiMAX will sometimes be in direct competition with city-run, distributed WiFi systems. Although, as Intel points out, WiMAX signals are likely to fade out like a cellular service inside of buildings, so the technology is actually best when paired with interior WiFi hot spots.

And many smaller communities, especially in the Northeast, are already peeved at the number of ugly cell phone towers. Although there are rumors that some companies are pushing to revamp some cell towers into WiMAX, since they can also carry cellular signals.

As a side note, look for a big portion of WiMAX’s early income to come from carrying cellular backhaul – at least until enough people pick up their own personal WiMAX cards to make the venture profitable for broadband Internet service providers.

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