An Introduction to WiMAX: It’s Not Just for Coffee Shops

Not that long ago, any computer with an Internet connection was physically tethered to a desk by a network cable. More recently, Wi-Fi networks provide a much higher degree of mobility, but nothing that even comes close to widespread coverage. As a result, workers that want to use Wi-Fi to stay in touch outside the office must always be on the lookout for the next wireless network, much like frogs jumping from lily pad to lily pad on a pond.

An emerging technology called WiMAX (which stands for Worldwide Interoperabilty for Microwave Access) offers workers even greater freedom of movement, with wireless networks that span miles rather than the several hundred or so feet typical of Wi-Fi. WiMAX will eventually enable high-speed wireless Internet access not just from a home or office, airport or coffee shop, but also from a train, park bench or any random street corner. 

How it works

Conceptually WiMAX works a lot like Wi-Fi, though they’re based on different technologies. One of the major differences is that WiMAX can make use of specific radio frequencies licensed from the government so it can transmit high-power signals that cover relatively long distances. (By comparison, Wi-Fi networks must use unlicensed radio frequencies that limit signal power, and thus its range.) WiMAX signals can generally travel anywhere between two and six miles, though the actual range will depend on many variables including obstructions like buildings and trees or even the contour of the terrain.

As far as performance is concerned, field tests of WiMAX have provided connection speeds ranging of 2-5 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and upstream connections in the neighborhood of one to two Mbps. That’s comparable to what you get from most wired broadband connections like cable modem or DSL, and speedier than what the fastest 3G cellular phone data networks currently offer.

WiMAX technology can generally be divided into fixed and mobile varieties. Fixed uses a stationary antenna at a customer’s location that points toward a base station mounted on a nearby tower. It offers the best possible performance since the antenna always has a direct line of sight to the base station, and it can be especially useful in rural or remote locations where standard cable modem or DSL service isn’t available.

The mobile version of WiMAX holds the greatest promise, however, since it will enable portable devices like a notebook computer to maintain a connection while moving around town (though with somewhat lower performance). 

Coming soon?

If WiMAX sounds good to you ‑ and why wouldn’t it ‑ you’re probably wondering when or if it’s coming to your area. That’s not an easy question to answer, as WiMAX is still a nascent technology whose long-term viability is far from assured. That’s because WiMAX technology doesn’t enjoy universal support among companies that you’d expect to make the equipment or to provide the service.

For example, the two biggest domestic cellular service providers—AT&T and Verizon Wireless—aren’t doing any WiMAX development. Instead they’re throwing their weight behind a competitive and still-evolving technology called LTE (Long Term Evolution) that’s based on the technology they already use.

To be sure, WiMAX has some noteworthy backers, including Bright House Networks, Comcast, Intel, Google, Sprint Nextel and Time Warner (and it’s no coincidence that some of the biggest WiMAX proponents are cable companies).  For its part, Intel will be adding WiMAX support to many of its mobile system chipsets, ensuring the availability of computers that will work with WiMAX right out of the box.

Perhaps as important, all of the aforementioned companies recently invested in a firm called Clearwire, which has pledged to deliver WiMAX service to between 120 and 140 million people nationwide by the end of 2010. Wide availability of WiMAX has been predicted for a couple of years now, so whether that goal will be met is an open question ‑ even though deploying a wireless network doesn’t involve digging up the ground, it’s still a significant investment of time and money.

There’s good reason to believe Clearwire can be successful though, because aside from its powerful new backers, the company already offers wireless broadband service (based on a precursor to WiMAX) in 55 cities. WiMAX networks are also in various stages of development from a number of small regional service providers, and a few are already running.

So if all goes according to plan, the next few years should see wider proliferation of WiMAX networks that will deliver to small businesses (and everyone else) the speed of today’s wired broadband connections with the convenience and mobility of wireless access.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He’s also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he’s currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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