Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Will WiMAX Become WiMedium?

WiMAX, the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access wireless broadband standard, has been looked to as the enabling agent for 4G roaming and mobile networks. In all the ballyhoo of the last few years, though, other technologies have been creeping up and may now be poised to grab the 4G crown for themselves.

The promise of WiMAX was to extend the concept of WiFi hotspots from hundreds of feet to tens of miles. A mobile hand-off extension will enable WiMAX to maintain connections from tower to tower to increase its reach indefinitely. But isn't that how cell phone towers work? Similar concept. WiMAX has been expected to one-up the cellular carriers by offering 10x to 100x the bandwidth of 2.5G and 3G cellular broadband with enough punch to be useful inside buildings as well as on the street.

But WiMAX is planned to be much more than a mere public hotspot replacement. Much of the capital justification to build out the new system is based on using it for cellular backhaul, T1 and DS3 business line replacement, and perhaps more arcane uses such as industrial and utility data acquisition and control. The juicy consumer mobile Internet market is yet to come.

Had WiMAX muscled-in on the wireless scene a few years ago, it might well have been the 800 lb. gorilla in the field right now. But the need for standards approval, testing, equipment certification and worldwide coordination has kept the gorilla slogging along rather than jumping into the fray. Business wireless providers have had to go forward with pre-WiMAX implementations to grab a piece of the marketplace before it goes elsewhere.

Where might it go? Those sleepy cellular carriers with their poky Kbps data links have been making steady progress. EV-DO is now widely available on CDMA carriers such as Verizon and Sprint. It offers DSL grade bandwidth of 700 Kbps with bursts up to 1.4 Mbps. But the new EV-DO Rev. A upgrade is also being deployed with service of 800 Kbps with bursts of to 3.1 Mbps and a faster upload speed of around 500 to 700 Kbps.

Perhaps that doesn't sound like much, but it's about what most users really need on an individual basis. It's fast enough for Internet Web access, video and audio streaming and even video conferencing. The 50 to 70 Mbps WiMAX speeds will probably degrade to an average of around 2 or 3 Mbps for multiple roaming and mobile users who aren't standing right under the tower. All of a sudden EV-DO looks pretty competitive. Especially when you consider that the Rev B version could provide peak bandwidths of 5 to 15 Mbps depending on how how it's deployed.

But the real cellular broadband monster may be LTE which stands for Long Term Evolution. By long term, it's probably several years away. Verizon is moving ahead with this technology and AT&T is expected to also adopt it as their 4G standard. LTE will offer download speeds of 100 Mbps or more with uploads of 50 Mbps at low latencies. These are Ethernet speeds, even Fast Ethernet speeds, enabling applications such as high definition video.

The big advantage the major cellular carriers have is that they already own networks of tower sites that blanket the highly populated areas where there are lots and lots of potential mobile broadband users. Sprint has the spectrum and plans to deploy a nationwide WiMAX network, but is having trouble coming up with the billions of dollars needed to develop this market. If WiMAX doesn't gain a strong foothold soon, it may find itself needing a standards upgrade just to keep up in the wireless bandwidth race.

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