At last month's WiMax World conference in Boston, the buzz around this new wireless technology was greater than it's ever been. However, there is still a lot of confusion around what WiMax really is and does.
WiMax is not "Wi-Fi on steroids," as too many have declared. Rather, WiMax is a distinct entity with two separate -- and incompatible -- personalities of its own.
First, WiMax is based on the current IEEE 802.16-204 standard, designed to provide Internet access across metro areas to fixed (nonmoving) or portable/nomadic (not moving while in operation) users. Equipment based on this standard will be available late this year, and I believe this form of WiMax will eventually dominate the access market on a global scale. The lower costs, interoperability and degree of comfort associated with having a major standard all but assure this outcome.
The other WiMax, which is still evolving, is "mobile WiMax," based on the almost complete IEEE 802.16e standard. As you might guess, this is a fully mobile version of WiMax that will be quite competitive with the data services available on cellular networks (which today primarily include UMTS, HSDPA, 1XRTT and 1xEV-DO).
Mobile WiMax is an all-IP broadband service that could offer 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps service over the next few years, very much in line with where wireless LANs are going, but using fewer and larger base stations than today's hot spots. Mobile WiMax will be the source of great controversy for at least the next year as the standard is finished; the WiMax Forum approves a specification; chips and systems are built; and services roll out. We'll have to wait for production systems before we know what mobile WiMax can really do.
The promise of what mobile WiMax can do is exciting, but the products and services just aren't here yet. There's reasonable concern about operators getting into the WiMax business and competing head on with the metro-scale Wi-Fi and the cellular folks. There are many arguments about business models, the requirement for handsets and other subscriber units (and base stations), how much all this will cost, and what performance will actually be available to end users and when.
The one undeniable appeal of mobile WiMax is the fact that it's an all-IP mobile broadband network -- thereby qualifying by Farpoint Group's definition as a "4G" technology. While many believe that 4G implies incredibly high throughput (100 Mbps to 1 Gbps are often mentioned), I don't see that kind of performance as being important right now. Rather, just having an xDSL/cable-modem class of connection that one can carry everywhere is so exciting that most will be satisfied with that for quite some time. Besides, given the scarcity of airwaves as large numbers of users compete for service, slower might be the norm regardless.
But tomorrow's slower pace is still a lot faster than what we have today. I'm excited about being able to carry a broadband wireless connection with me everywhere I go. As is the case with cell phones and voice, tomorrow's broadband systems will finally cut the cord tethering us to a specific location. Will mobile WiMax become the wireless broadband of choice? Stay tuned.
Craig J. Mathias is the founder of the Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless communications and mobile computing.