The Dawn of WiMax

WiMax won't unseat current wireless broadband technologies, but it could become an important technology for certain types of applications.

As WiMax trickles into the public consciousness, people are starting to ask questions about the high-bandwidth wireless technology, such as: How will it compete with widely deployed wired broadband technologies, such as cable and DSL? Will it soon replace Wi-Fi?

When available, WiMax will offer fixed, nomadic and mobile wireless broadband connectivity—without needing direct line-of-sight access to a base station. In typical configurations, WiMax could deliver per-channel capacities up to 40M bps for fixed and nomadic access and 5- to 10M-bps capacity for cell deployments, depending on spectrum allocation, network loading and terrain.

The fixed wireless implementation, which is based on the 802.16a standard, will be the first to market, with equipment from vendors available as early as this year. Intended for last-mile broadband access, 802.16a will be considered an alternative to cable, DSL and T-1 lines.

Deployments of the mobile wireless version of WiMax will come late next year or early in 2007. This implementation, based on the 802.16e standard, will support nomadic applications and will primarily contend with the 2.5G and 3G wireless technologies that are available from licensed mobile operators. In the future, mobile WiMax could vie with the mobile wireless successor known as 4G, or fourth generation.

While WiMax boasts certain strengths, its advantages are not compelling enough to unseat the entrenched technologies already deployed for fixed broadband. WiMax, however, could become an important technology for certain types of applications.

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For instance, millions—if not billions—of people currently are unserved or underserved by cable and DSL. These people live in all parts of the world, from rural areas of developed countries to huge swaths of developing countries. The 802.16a version of WiMax is well-suited for these markets.

WiMax will challenge licensed wireless technologies. Through its 802.16e standard, it can deliver, depending on its implementation, better performance than 2.5G and 3G networks. In addition, WiMax has quality of service and security intelligence built in to enable users in the field to take advantage of real-time ERP applications, to name one example.

When united with standards-based mobile IP technology, WiMax has the potential to combine the best of broadband access with cellular mobility. In spite of these advantages, 3G deployments are already under way at a healthy pace.

In the unlicensed space, Wi-Fi is entrenched, but WiMax may serve as a backhaul to connect wireless hot spots.

The bottom line is that WiMax will coexist with current wireless broadband technologies, rather than replace them.

Ann Sun is senior manager for wireless and mobility at Cisco Systems Inc. Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community and welcomes contributions. Send submissions to

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