Drive-By WiMAX at CES

After talking earlier this week about the speed bumps that U.S. WiMAX deployment faces, it only seemed proper to take a ride in the WiMAX-equipped vehicles that Motorola and Intel revved up at CES.

I will geek out a bit after the jump, but the bottom line is that Wednesday’s brief broadband cruise provided public proof that mobile WiMAX works pretty much just like extended-range Wi-Fi, or maybe more like a cellular 3G network, does. But there are still too many loose ends — including incomplete equipment rollouts at the chip and device level, and uncertain provider plans — to guarantee widespread WiMAX availability in this country anytime soon.

On the optimist side, it is always fun to find new technologies that let you make Skype calls from a car while watching “Hillary crying” videos on YouTube. Sometimes broadband reporting is fun.

The Chevy Suburbans done up in Intel blue and white were true Geek-Pimp My Ride — opening the back hatch revealed a desktop WiMAX CPE with its antennas taped in an upright position. The signal went from there to some hard-wired gadgets (including a GPS-like display in the dash) and a D-Link Wi-Fi router, which made the Suburban a mobile hot spot. There was also a big battery pack to keep it all hummin.’ Cool.

To support the demos, Intel and Motorola had built a small, four-tower WiMAX network that was used to supply bandwidth not just to the tour cars but also to a BMW race-car promo area (where WiMAX-powered UMPCs were reportedly in operation) as well as the Motorola and Intel show-floor booths. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the best Speedtest.Net mark I could record was a 427 Kbps download — with the network dropping before the upload stat could be recorded.

In fine PR fashion, the Motorola rep that came along for the ride said the network drops “showed that the demo was real.” Nice save.

But the short geographical boundary of the drive — we didn’t go much farther than a one-block loop around the Vegas convention center — didn’t do much to prove one of WiMAX’s touted promises, that of multiple-mile coverage zones. Since a lot of the performance of WiMAX will depend on how robust an operator decides to build out a network (just like cell phones), initial performance mileage may vary.

While I did appreciate the irony of making a Skype call on a network using spectrum loaned by Clearwire (in the past, Clearwire was not so amenable to the use of outside VoIP providers), I have to say I didn’t do or see anything I couldn’t already do with the Verizon EVDO PC card I carry around, provided someone else was doing the driving.

In the end, the demo really wasn’t about car computing (though there may someday be some mobile WiMAX devices that specialize in such tasks), but more about showing that mobile WiMAX is no longer just a theory. But while Chevy Suburbans may be big enough to handle speed bumps, it’s gonna take a lot of gas for the long drive toward a mass-market WiMAX future.

Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.

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