For those of us who want to enjoy life in some remote destination, getting speedy broadband access can be tricky; but to get connected to the office at airports and elsewhere, WiMax is good news in the making.
WiMax (IEEE 802.16), also known as Metropolitan Area Network (MAN), is the next generation of wireless technology, capable of serving a maximum range of up to 30 miles at speeds of up to 75Mbps – about 25 times faster than broadband.
WiMax goes beyond anything the current standard IEEE 802.11b/g can deliver. Offering distance and speed, it easily beats 3G, both in terms of transfer rates and cost.
Despite its futuristic image, 3G has been waiting in the wings for quite a while. Meanwhile, several faster options have emerged, designed for those who want to transfer large amounts of data with the speed of broadband (and beyond) but without wires and without punitive 3G price tariffs.
WiFi is today's wireless implementation. If you can find a hotspot (a public network), it is generally cheaper and faster for Web and email access than 3G. However, WiFi coverage is patchy and speeds fall short of the data rates that users need. WiMax is the answer.
WiMax can handle several megabits per second over tens of miles. In contrast to this, the range of an 802.11b/g WiFi hotspot is often less than 100 yards, and speed isn't sufficient for wide deployment. In contrast, WiMax will create Internet superhighways covering entire cities. WiMax can also work in both licensed and unlicensed spectrums.
With WiMax, wireless carriers win the chance to compete with incumbent telcos such as BT and France Telecom. Altitude Telecom, a French network operator with a nationwide licence, has just announced its 'wireless DSL' service using WiMax-based equipment. BT is running WiMax trials, too.
WiMax also enables broadband access provision in rural areas and developing countries, as its range helps it bridge the passage to the local telephone exchange. South African Telkom intends to switch to WiMax and is running trials in Pretoria and Durban.
The technology is already getting well-deserved publicity and attracting first large-scale investments. Hotspot operators around the world are contemplating the upgrade.
Who's behind it?
WiMax is an open industry standard, backed by over 182 companies including AT&T, BT, Cisco, Dell, Intel and Nortel.
One of the most active supporters is Intel, which is hoping for considerable success with WiMax. Intel recently disclosed details of its forthcoming WiMax chip, code-named Rosedale. It is also working with Alcatel to develop WiMax base stations, which should start shipping in 2005.
Given the fact that 55 per cent of the 32 million notebooks shipped with WiFi networking based on IEEE 802.11b/g, it's quite reasonable to assume that Intel's strong push for WiMax can quickly lead to wide-spread use and lower prices, benefiting all platforms.
Remember the 3G network hype in 2000? 3G licences sold to mobile operators cost over £68billion in Europe alone. Operators are beginning to offer 3G networks and 3G-savvy phones, luring customers into contracts. Nevertheless, 3G technology is far from wide deployment, except in Japan and South Korea.
Almost ten years since 3G promises hit the press, the dream remains undelivered. While ringtones developed into a sophisticated and profitable industry, most 3G network owners are still attempting to transform their investment into profitable products.
3G licences did deliver lucrative deals to Europe's governments, but five years later there's little real result. Operators are accused of charging too much to use 3G services, as they attempt to recoup investment.
With or without 3G?
Despite their initial suspicion of WiFi, mobile telecommunications operators now regard wireless as an opportunity, not a threat.
Vodafone recently announced its deal with BT that lets its customers use BT's 4,000-strong network of WiFi hotspots. Verizon and T-Mobile have similar agreements.
While such deals can potentially cannibalize the emerging 3G data business, mobile operators seem aware that they cannot fight WiFi. Nor can they ignore its successor, WiMax. Industry observers believe they will end up offering both 3G and WiMax services.
Spreading the news
Fears that the technology will appear widely across dedicated IT-literate areas such as Japan, South Korea or California, and then take its time appearing here seem unfounded.
BT deploys cutting-edge WiMax technology from Alvarion to provide Radio Broadband services (Broadband Wireless Access, or BWA).
BT's trials of its Radio Broadband technology have been successful and the company has signed an initial contract with Alvarion to help bring the solution to the market. An initial equipment order for BT's first sites in Northern Ireland has been made, after the DTI contracted the company to furnish 100 per cent broadband coverage across Northern Ireland by December 2005.
Radio Broadband will be an integral part of this total-coverage solution. Successful Pilot schemes took place in Porthleven (Cornwall), Pwllheli (Wales), Ballingry (Scotland) and Campsie (Northern Ireland). Positive feedback showed 73 per cent of participants ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ satisfied. Eighty-nine per cent of those involved said they would be interested in subscribing to the service. It seems as though Radio Broadband will play a key part in addressing those 565 exchanges across the UK where ADSL is not commercially viable. BT intends to work with partners to provide the most cost-effective technical solution.
Other companies, including the UK broadband wireless startup Libera and TowerStream in the US, are beginning to commercially deploy WiMax services in the unlicensed 5.8GHz space in London and other cities. Both will offer competitive Internet access to businesses rather than residents. Libera hopes to cover 75 per cent of UK businesses over the next two years.
First-generation WiMax hardware is based on proprietary inventions and is at an experimental stage. Standards-setting body the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is expected to produce binding specifications in 2005, which will probably spark large-scale deployment and hopefully reduce equipment and component prices.
Beyond AirPort Extreme
Apple has successfully surfed the WiFi notebook wave with its notebooks accounting for an ever-increasing share of its sales. The latest generation of Apple's AirPort-enabled portables 'speak' the ultra-compatible IEEE 802.11b/g, so no matter where you go, you can always get connected – provided that you find an access point.
While some Windows XP users are often still trying to figure out how to get into the Wi-Fi network when the time comes to board the plane, a Mac user on the go is connected in no time. The ease-of-use and reliability of Mac OS X among mobile users is legendary.
Next year, a new version of the WiMax standard will also be able to cope with 'hand-offs' – seamlessly passing a connection between access points as the end user machine travels, allowing WiMax networks to be used on the go.
To keep up, sooner or later Apple will have to adopt WiMax. Given Apple's superb track record in wireless networking, it’s likely that Apple will not only join the WiMax movement, but lead it. It's also possible that Apple won't market its implementation as ‘WiMax’.
Widespread use of WiMax has its pros and cons – one of which is that of security concerns. A range of up to 30 miles can pose significant risks protecting sensitive corporate data, creating the need for a more reliable operating system than that most people willingly endure. This is a chance for Mac OS X to gain new ground.
If history truly repeats itself, one thing is certain: once Intel has triggered adoption of WiMax technology, it will be up to Apple to deliver easy-to-use management software, so WiMax isn't a geek-only zone.
The only question is what Apple will call it? And when Apple will ship it?