WiMax: Too Good to Be True?

Opinion: WiMax could bring high-speed, wireless broadband to millions of businesses and homes in the next few years. Will it live up to the hype?

You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true. You also know that where technology is concerned, very occasionally it turns out "they" are wrong. WiMax, with the potential to make high-speed broadband available anywhere in a metropolitan area, could be one of those instances.

WiMax, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, offers greater bandwidth and range than the 802.11 family of standards. Where Wi-Fi is intended to cover small areas, such as offices, homes, and hot spots, WiMax can theoretically extend a 70M-bps connection up to 30 miles from a base station capable of supporting thousands of users.

Sound too good to be true? Of course it does and proponents admit that is a best-case scenario. Yet the claims arent that far-fetched. Intel, one of the companies pushing WiMax, is already conducting 50 tests around the country and has begun shipping its first WiMax chips to equipment manufacturers. In its tests, Intel is finding ranges of about one to three miles in urban areas and up to 10 miles in the suburbs and the sticks.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Intels WiMax plans.

That is still enough to bring real competition to the telephone companies that today provide most of the "last-mile" connectivity into offices and homes. One of the things that has broadband providers excited about WiMax is the ability to bypass the wired network entirely, giving them control of their customers entire connection to the Internet.

As a wireless technology, WiMax offers tremendous flexibility. Setting up new connections should be fairly easy, without the sometimes several-month delays that telephone companies impose while provisioning lines. WiMax will also be portable, a boon for customers needing connectivity from such places as construction sites. It should also be easier than wired connections to bring back into service following natural or man-made disasters.

WiMax should also be able to provide portable backhaul service for high-volume hot spots and 802.11 networks created to support events and trade shows. What I question is whether WiMax will be useful as a Wi-Fi replacement.

Some proponents claim WiMax will enable users to carry a high-speed Internet connection anywhere they go in a metro area. I am very suspicious of such claims, first because WiMax probably wont penetrate buildings very well, and secondly because a directional antenna will probably be required for WiMax connectivity.

Even when someone shows me a demonstration of mobile WiMax, Ill want to have a long discussion of how it might work in a fully built-out system.

I am also skeptical of claims that WiMax will solve line-of-sight problems that face similar microwave networks. The standard is designed to be capable of dealing with signals which have bounced around a bit—as microwaves often do—and become scrambled in the process. Customers are supposed to be able to point their directional antennas at buildings and other surfaces and bounce their data back to the WiMax base station if no direct line of sight is available.

I wont get into the etiquette of bouncing microwaves off the window of someones office, but while I am sure its possible, Id still want to see a fully-loaded WiMax network perform under such circumstances before accepting the claim.

If this works as promised, it will give customers much greater flexibility in locating their WiMax antennas and avoids a problem that helped doom Sprints venture into wireless Internet for small businesses and homes.

Sprint lost a bundle of money in the late 1990s offering Internet connections via fixed microwave equipment that required a direct line-of-sight with the companys wireless hubs to function. That made installation difficult, prevented many potential customers from receiving the service and required expensive hardware.

In areas where the service was available, such as San Francisco, its still possible to see some of these flat-panel antennas perched high on masts above homes and offices, pointed at the hills where the base stations are located. (Last I heard, Sprint is still providing service to existing customers.)

WiMax proponents—there are 140 companies represented in the WiMax Forum—say their technology solves these problems and such wide support will quickly bring down prices, as happened with 802.11. WiMax is also being touted as a route for VOIP into businesses and homes, making it a true competitor with wired carriers.

Analysts expect to see commercial WiMax rollouts beginning in 2007. Between now and then we can expect to hear more about the technology and find out how it performs in real-world use. If WiMax can deliver on its promises, which seems at least possible and perhaps even likely, it will be the most exciting wireless development yet.

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