Friday, March 02, 2007

Gigabit WiMAX Could Offer Wireless Fiber Bandwidths

It's pretty much a slam-dunk that massive bandwidth requirements have one transport technology available and that's fiber optic carriers. Oh, there are flavors of fiber transport to pick from. You can employ SONET-based metro and inter-city rings, coarse and dense wavelength multiplexing to light-up dark fiber, or long haul IP transit services. Over very short ranges, such as building to building links, free space optical systems can be highly cost effective. But how about point to multipoint where fiber hasn't been trenched? Or what about high bandwidth mobile?

Fiber is the new copper and Gigabit WiMAX is going to be the new microwave. WiMAX hasn't even gotten its legs yet, but the IEEE is launching an initiative to increase mobile wireless bandwidths to 1 Gbps by 2009. The new standard will be called 802.16m. Why, you might ask, is an order of magnitude increase in WiMAX bandwidth called for at this early stage?

The applications, they are a changin'. What looked like broadband a few years ago is starting to look like too small a pipe today.

Let's take a look at the story on WiMAX. WiMAX is specified as having 70 Mbps of bandwidth and a 70 mile range, although not both at the same time. There is a bandwidth / distance tradeoff. Even so, many users will be able to get 1 to 10 Mbps service within a metro area or decent broadband Internet service in rural areas. One application of WiMAX is replacement service for DSL or Cable Internet. Think of WiMAX as a really, really big WiFi hotspot and you've got the idea. Another intended use is for cellular backhaul. Right now every cell tower needs one or more T1 lines to connect to the mobile switching office. As cellular data rates increase, like they are with EVDO Rev A, more and more lines are needed to keep up. Fiber might be a better match to the increasing bandwidths. Yet many cell towers are out in the boonies where the only fiber is in the foodstock for farm animals. Cellular operators eye WiMAX as a way to get the backhaul bandwidth they need without prohibitive construction costs.

All of this is well and good except that bandwidths of 500 Kbps to a few Mbps are yesterday's news, not tomorrow's. Have you noticed that major Cable operators have been voluntarily bumping up the bandwidth of their broadband services. Insight, a major operator in the Midwest, is running ads promoting its 10 Mbps service. Verizon is moving even faster with its fiber-to-the-home FiOS service. They're up to 50 Mbps and counting. AT&T is jumping to get 25 to 50 Mbps over legacy copper using advanced DSL techniques.

None of this has to do with surfing the Web or even downloading music. That was the impetus for the original move to broadband Internet service. Dial-up was fine for email, but VoIP and streaming anything demanded an order of magnitude speed increase. Even that is proving to be too little. It is estimated that much of the ISP bandwidth today is consumed by video downloads, not audio and certainly not by users casually reading Web pages. The emerging killer-app is going to be a bandwidth killer application. It's high definition streaming and on-demand video. In other words, television.

Bill Gates was once convinced that 640 KB was all the RAM a personal computer would ever need. For text processing it was. Now you can't get by with less than 1 GB for Vista. That's over a thousandfold or three orders of magnitude increase. The same factor applied to bandwidth takes us from 56 Kbps dial-up to 56 Mbps broadband. It's even more dramatic when you consider that the early 640 KB PCs had 300 bps modems.

In the consumer arena, the big bandwidth sink is going to be HDTV everywhere. Over the air broadcast is the small piece of this action. The rest will be streaming and video on demand over wired networks. These are Cable MSOs and telcos competing with Cable, plus Internet video services and mobile video. Mobile devices want a piece of this action and are starting to get it now over cellular broadband such as EVDO and UTMS or EDGE. WiMAX will support the lower rate, lower resolution streams. But Gigabit WiMAX can support a real television-like experience.

In the B2B space, Gigabit WiMAX can truly make the desktop workstation mobile. This can include huge business file transfers, video conferencing, medical image transfers, backup and recovery, and software downloads. Other wireline or P2P microwave applications such as audio and video broadcast remote pickup might also find high bandwidth mobile wireless service a good match.

The IEEE is targeting the end of 2009 for implementation of Gigabit WiMAX. I'm wondering now if the 10 Gig WiMAX initiative will launch any later than 2008.

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