WiMax, an evolving standard for point-to-multipoint wireless networking, is poised to do for the last mile of broadband what Wi-Fi has done for the last 100 feet of networking.
Unlike other wireless technology standards, WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) covers several different frequency ranges. The IEEE 802.16 standard addresses frequencies from 10GHz to 66GHz, with the 802.16a specification adding coverage in the 2GHz-to-11GHz band. WiMax has a range of up to 30 miles, but most analysts think in practice it will be deployed in 10-mile cells. It can achieve shared data-transfer rates of up to 75 M bps on a single channel.
Of course, theres nothing new about this. Proprietary point-to-multipoint microwave networks have been around since before 802.11 was a glimmer in a network engineers eye: I recall all too well standing on top of a building on a rainy day in the mid-80s at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center, trying to get a cranky, microwave-spawned T1 connection to work.
So why should we care now about what has been a niche broadband technology? Whats different is that WiMax, the commercial standardization of 802.16, should drop the price of wireless last-mile broadband to the point where theres a mass market for it.
"From an operators standpoint, it gives them a standard that will lower the cost of equipment," said Edward Rerisi, director of research for Allied Business Intelligence, in an interview in April. "Today, this is equipment [that] is very expensive …. A common standard should lead to a more competitive, and cheaper, marketplace."
He said the market will grow enough that "equipment vendors will be able to sell more equipment, thus leading to more revenue for them." And, he added, "Consumers are very thirsty for broadband."
Equally important, from where I sit, is that the existing old-guard proprietary wireless microwave providers, such as Alcatel and Siemens, are jumping on the WiMax bandwagon, and Intel is putting its considerable resources behind WiMax. Intel is working with numerous partners, most noticeably Alvarion, a leader in last-mile broadband wireless access equipment, to deliver low-cost WiMax-certified equipment, based on Intel 802.16a silicon. If Intel gets its way, the laptops we buy in late 2005 will be both Wi-Fi- and WiMax-compatible.
If that happens, you can expect consumer demand for WiMax base stations to drive hotels, convention centers and airports to replace their limited-range Wi-Fi hot spots with longer-range WiMax hot spots.