Wi-Max : A viable alternative to Wi-Fi?
One of my professors told me about a new wireless technology that is starting to gain supporters in the US. This is a very tempting technology if you live in an area that has very slow connection times. I can see companies putting the Wi-Max antenna's on cell phone towers. Here is the best written artice I have found on the topic so far.
Article from the Seattle Times
by Nancy Gohring
Over the two years since Wi-Fi emerged, the hype behind it has swung from one end to the other.
This wireless technology, some pundits said, would cover every inch of every city, bringing low-cost or free Internet access to laptop users anytime from virtually any place. Others said the quickly growing industry built around it was headed for a dot-com bust. So far, the truth has fallen somewhere in between.
Now an even newer technology is following in Wi-Fi's path and beginning to command center stage. It's called WiMax and predictions of its future swing between extremes, too. Some supporters imagine a day when it replaces the need for Wi-Fi hotspots — locations where Wi-Fi is accessible — while others offer a more tempered vision of the two technologies working together.
WiMax would allow an operator to place antennas on just a couple of towers in a town to offer wireless Internet access just about everywhere. Customers within two or three miles of an antenna could share Internet access at speeds of 75 megabits per second (Mbps), likely receiving 1 or 2 Mbps each. Users as far as 30 miles away would have access as well, albeit at slower speeds.
By contrast, Wi-Fi connects users to a landline Internet connection at 11 to 54 megabits per second, and a Wi-Fi cloud extends only a few hundred feet. And while Wi-Fi is an extension of wired Internet access, WiMax could be marketed as an alternative to DSL or cable-modem service for residential users or small businesses. Eventually, proponents envision a portable service that subscribers could access around town via laptops or handheld devices.
But it's too early to tell if any piece of that vision will come to fruition. Products based on the standard aren't expected to be available until the end of this year at the earliest, and so far, no major wireless carrier has pledged to build a WiMax network.
"The industry is getting a bit ahead of itself," said Andy Fuertes, a senior analyst with Visant Strategies, a consulting and research company in Kings Park, N.Y.
Backing by Intel
WiMax is in the spotlight partly because of a group called the Wi-Max Forum, which backs the developing standard and is supported by chip-making heavyweight Intel.
It wouldn't be the first time that operators tried to deliver high-speed wireless access, but this time supporters say WiMax can solve the problems that undermined earlier attempts.
In the mid-1990s, Sprint and WorldCom bought up chunks of spectrum — airwaves carrying wireless signals — with the idea they would build wireless networks to offer broadband access to homes and small businesses.
But expensive, inadequate technology squashed their efforts. "That market has been a horror story, really," said Phil Belanger, vice president of marketing at BelAir Networks, a Kanata, Ont.-based developer of Wi-Fi networks designed to cover large areas. "WiMax will take a crack at that market, as well and hopefully improve the economics."
WiMax supporters hope they've solved some of the technological problems that hampered earlier efforts. Plus, by building products that meet a standard and encouraging a major chipmaker like Intel to mass-produce chips, they hope to drive down the price of WiMax equipment in much the same way the Wi-Fi Alliance promoted Wi-Fi.
Before WiMax networks start blanketing cities, however, many WiMax and Wi-Fi proponents agree that WiMax could first be used to decrease the costs of building and maintaining Wi-Fi hotspots.
"We think that in the next three to five years, WiMax will prove to be a valuable technology for wide-area transport (of data) and will displace T1s," said David Garrison, chief executive of Salt Lake City-based STSN, which builds hotspots primarily in hotels.
Hotspot operators such as STSN or Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA, which builds hotspots in Starbucks coffee shops, use T1 lines — landline links provided by the phone company — to connect a hotspot to the Internet. But it can take as long as 45 days for the phone company to hook up a T1.
"That's an eternity," Garrison said.
Instead of relying on T1s, STSN could build its own WiMax link using the same unlicensed frequencies that Wi-Fi uses.
AT&T Wireless also thinks that WiMax could be useful in connecting hotspots to the Internet, said Abhi Ingle, vice president of enterprise data solutions.
As a wireless carrier builds WiMax, it can decide to upgrade the network to allow customers access the Internet anywhere the WiMax network covers.
"As the density of the infrastructure increases due to subscribership, the technology allows for mobility," said Chuck Riggle, vice president of business development at Minneapolis-based NextNet Wireless, a wireless-equipment vendor backed by telecom tycoon Craig McCaw.
He says coverage throughout a city is the future of WiMax. "I believe mobility is inevitable," said Riggle.
End to cafe culture?
Some vendors are so bullish that they say if a WiMax network covers a whole city, the need for Wi-Fi hotspots in venues such as cafes may disappear.
"As the coverage reaches the same as cellphone coverage, you may not have a need for Wi-Fi," said Sayez-Amr El-Hamamsy, president and CEO of Wi-Lan. "I think that's a long-term outlook, but it's definitely a distinct possibility."
The more prevalent thinking, however, is that Wi-Fi and WiMax will each fill a need in the market. WiMax was built for reaching across wide distances but not necessarily for what Wi-Fi does best: network different devices within a building.
"It's always more efficient if you have a product that's designed for inside," said Dean Chang, a WiMax Forum board member and director of product management at Aperto Networks, a Milpitas, Calif., vendor working on WiMax gear. "As you go indoors you lose some performance (with WiMax)."
In addition, because Wi-Fi focuses on a shorter range, the networks can deliver faster connections. "The speed of WiMax will never be like Wi-Fi," said Mohammad Shakouri, a WiMax Forum board member and vice president of business development at Alvarion, also a developer of WiMax equipment. "You cannot build a wide-area network that will compete with the local area network."
But despite potentially slower speeds, a WiMax network would be valuable because it would be available in more locations than Wi-Fi hotspots are.
Intel is pursuing a strategy to combine Wi-Fi and WiMax onto a single chip so that users may switch from network to network. Plus, it would be hard for just about any technology to displace Wi-Fi. The number of hotspot users worldwide is expected to grow from 9.3 million last year to 30 million in 2004, according to the Gartner Group. More than 50 percent of laptops used by business people will have built-in Wi-Fi by year's end. Also, the number of hotspots has grown from a few hundred locations worldwide in 2000 to 40,000 in 2003, according to research from In-Stat/MDR.
Meanwhile, WiMax backers can still imagine plenty of reasons to build their networks. "Smaller telcos like rural operators are looking at this, as are energy players, cable operators, cellular carriers and ISPs," said Fuertes.
Municipal governments could also build WiMax networks for use by the police force and city workers. Such groups are currently using Wi-Fi gear to blanket cities.
Take Boardman and Hermiston, towns in eastern Oregon that boast one of the largest Wi-Fi networks, covering 600 square miles and aimed principally for use by emergency and law-enforcement officials. As a technology designed to cover wide areas, WiMax could offer a better solution.
Some say that the next generation of the Wi-Fi standard, known as 802.11n, may encourage builders of some Wi-Fi networks, such as the one in Oregon, to use WiMax instead. That's because 802.11n, still in development, may require existing Wi-Fi users to replace all their hardware.
"At that time, if they're considering doing something that drastic, they well might want to consider a complete alternative, like WiMax," said Belanger of BelAir Networks.
In fact, WiMax was designed with mechanisms to support voice, so some say a network could compete directly with next-generation cellular networks, known as 3G.
Wireless carrier Nextel Communications, which doesn't have a clear path to upgrade its network to match competitors' promises, recently bought much of the spectrum once owned by WorldCom and has declared an interest in WiMax. For now, however, it's using a slightly different technology to test a network using that spectrum in Raleigh, N.C.
But analysts doubt that WiMax could be used to compete directly with the cellular carriers. "It would be a big jump to build an entire network that competes with Wi-Fi and 3G," said William Clark, a research director with Gartner Group. "The cellular guys already have tens of millions of customers. They'd crush WiMax in a heartbeat."
The consensus is there will be a place for all the wireless technologies. "We think there are enough interesting mobile applications and enough demand for mobile applications that a variety of wireless networking technologies will fly over the long term," said Clark.
Nancy Gohring is a freelance writer in Seattle who reports frequently on telecommunications and technology.