Sky-high expectations for wireless broadband services are not new, but neither are its disappointments. History is pock-marked with dramatic wireless failures. Enter WiMax—an emerging technology that is billed as both a mobile and stationary means of providing low-cost, high-speed access.
Proponents evangelize the technical and economic fundamentals of WiMax as the nirvana for carrier-based solutions in both rural and congested cities where the technical, physical and economic constraints of DSL and cable simply fail. WiMax must still navigate the abyss of competing technologies, spectrum issues, standards politics and scale of economies. Can WiMax survive its hype, navigate through a trough of disillusionment and emerge to deliver a mainstream world without wires? If Wi-Fi started off like a parched desert in dire need of water, WiMax proponents appear to be moving to create a comfortable oasis right from the get-go.
Early wireless LAN products based on the IEEE 802.11 spec were a dismal failure. Every supplier interpreted the 802.11 spec differently. As the market for wireless LAN vacillated on the fringes of obscurity, the Wi-Fi Alliance was born with the charter to bring—at the very least—some order to the chaos centered on interoperability. The results are clear; the market exploded with competition, low hardware price points and integration into a large array of devices including laptops, PDAs and phones.
Like Wi-Fi, WiMax began in earnest with modifications to its core standard, called IEEE 802.16d and approved by the IEEE in June 2004. Unlike the base standards of Wi-Fi that yielded many barriers for global implementation, WiMax’s international technology potential appears solid. Equally important is that WiMax, unlike Wi-Fi, is telecom friendly. WiMax not only supports licensed and unlicensed spectrum, it supports deployment in varying channel capacities to address the different amounts of spectrum carriers own from market to market and in different parts of the world. Finally, while developers struggle to bring multimedia and QoS support to Wi-Fi, an improved PHY layer combined with an intelligent, slotted TDMA uplink/downlink protocol is inherent in WiMax. This will improve the latency that affects the network capability to support voice and video services, as well as overall service reliability. Revision E, due out sometime in 2005, will support mobility.
While Wi-Fi is ubiquitous in laptops, it can’t go beyond more than a few hundred feet. WiMax is designed for longer range, perhaps 25 miles in a fixed network or one to three miles in a mobile (802.16e) environment. WiMax base stations are targeted to be made cheap like Wi-Fi and use standard IP networking instead of proprietary backend solutions
like 1x-EVDO (announced by Sprint and Verizon). WiMax is initially targeted to compete against T1s, DSL and cable modems—whose reach is limited due to copper-based physical and economic barriers.
The stage is set for WiMax. The contrasts to the Wi-Fi evolution are important because, like Wi-Fi, it was born in computing companies and was developed in an open forum, unlike most cellular-based technologies, which originate as embryos laced in the politics central to the strategic growth of any single company and under the guise of open standards (e.g., Qualcomm CDMA-1xRTT, DO, EVDO). Finally, WiMax is designed to be fully integrated, low cost and to deliver high speed/capacity like Wi-Fi but unlike modern day (or future) cellular services. Will it deliver? Who will be the winners and losers in the WiMax marketplace? Stay tuned … •
Bob Egan is president of Mobile Competency, a Providence, R.I.–based consultancy.