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WiMax technology clearing path to mainstream

A number of industry moves have made WiMax almost ready for the mainstream. But there's good news and bad news to consider before making the move.

For many companies, especially small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), WiMax technology is an exciting prospect because it promises to broaden current wireless access and bandwidth boundaries.

WiMax stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, and represents an industry consortium assembled to advance and promote IEEE 802.16 standards for broadband wireless networks. WiMax 802.16 hardware delivers bandwidth to support multimedia applications, including high-definition video streams, and has a range of up to 30 miles, creating a reasonable and viable last-mile wireless solution.

That's good for providers because it lets them avoid running fiber optic or copper cables for that last mile (always the most expensive one). It's also good for consumers because it promises additional options for broadband networking that not only break the cable and DSL "duopoly," as it's sometimes called, but also offer untethered access to network services, without requiring additional end-user equipment.

But when it comes to pondering the future of WiMax technology and its usability, there's both good news and bad news.

  • The good news is business interest in and momentum toward WiMax deployment is high. Intel Corp. invested $600 million in Kirkland, Wash.-based WiMax provider Clearwire U.S. LLC in early July. Clearwire was founded by cellular telephony pioneer Craig McCaw. Clearwire already offers pilot WiMax programs in Seattle, Honolulu and southern Florida for as little as $26 per month. This puts the heat on existing cable- and DSL-based broadband Internet access to do more, and charge less.
  • Intel plans to deliver a next-generation version of Centrino in the first half of 2007. This new offering will be built around a chipset code-named Santa Rosa that already supports 802.11n. But Intel has also demonstrated a single-chip Wi-Fi/WiMax radio that could connect to either type of network, and a plug-in WiMax PC Card that lets any notebook with an open PC Card slot make a WiMax connection. Both the chipset and the PC Card run the mobile version of WiMax, which recently won IEEE approval. All this adds up to potent mobile WiMax options, for new laptops (which can use the chipset) and older ones (which can use the PC Card).
  • Today, more than 10 original equipment manufacturer vendors offer WiMax hardware solutions to system builders, a sign that the industry is gearing up to make parts available for notebooks, personal digital assistants and network interface cards or motherboard chipsets, not including Intel's own efforts in this area.
  • The bad news is that you can't configure a WiMax notebook through any of the major notebook or PC vendors just yet. However, WiMax is building plenty of momentum and it looks likely that if such capability isn't part of the notebook configuration process in the first half of 2007, it will be by the second half.

    The future of WiMax technology hinges on a couple of big and important "ifs," but should those possibilities become realities it could represent the next big step forward in mobile and/or wireless networking and slowly force 802.11a/b/g out of use.

    The first big "if" is cost: Early WiMax PC Cards max out at 750 Kbps and cost more than $250, plus $40 or more in monthly service charges. Vendors will have to provide chipsets and card components at significantly lower prices to build a market for this technology. Actual pricing is not yet clear, with bulk products not likely to be available until late 2007.

    The second big "if" is how perceived price/value compares with existing wireless and mobile networking technologies. Mobile offerings probably won't be hard to beat -- Verizon Wireless is charging $60 or more per month for its BroadbandAccess, and it claims average download speeds of 400-700 Kbps with a top end of 2.0 Mbps. However, displacing 802.11a/b/g will require considerably more capability.

    While it's clear WiMax technology has a lot of potential and enough powerful backing to go somewhere, it remains to be seen if users in general, and SMBs in particular, have similar destinations in mind. Unless the two big unknowns of price and perceived price/value are better understood, WiMax still qualifies as "interesting technology" rather than "must-have networking."

    Ed Tittel is a freelance writer and trainer based in Austin, Texas, who's been writing and teaching about networking topics since the late 1980s. A regular contributor to numerous TechTarget.com websites, Tittel also writes for Certification Magazine, TechBuilder.org, and Tom's Hardware/Mobility Guru.

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