Sunday, January 16, 2005

WiMAX - The 800 LB Wireless Gorilla

Look out WiFi! Look out MMDS! Look out EV-DO! Look out 3G! The WiMAX monster is about to come out of the swamp and take dominion over the Earth. Who else should be fearing its mighty rumble? DSL, cable modem service and even T1 lines. Make no mistake about it, the MAX in WiMAX really does mean BIG.

WiMAX is a new wireless data transmission standard that has been brewing for years. What gives it monster potential is that over 180 companies have banded together to set standards and provide certification of equipment through an industry organization called the WiMAX forum. The new standards will also be blessed by the venerable Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers under the IEEE 802.16 standard. The basic standard was approved in 2001, with an extension called 802.16-2004 approved last July. So, what are we waiting for?

Monster? Does anyone see a monster? Not yet. The big reason is that chips and end user equipment are still winding their way through the design and certification cycle. They should be popping up in the marketplace pretty soon now. WiMAX is also such a far reaching standard that it will probably take the rest of this decade before its impact is felt completely.

So, what IS a WiMAX anyway? It sounds like just a beefier version of WiFi. Oh, it is. But it's a lot more too. WiMAX is actually an acronym for "Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access," which gives you an idea of its planned reach. Originally envisioned as another line-of-sight transmission standard for the 10 to 66 GHz frequency band, it has morphed into much more. Now it includes both licensed and unlicensed operation in the 2 to 11 GHz bands and non-line-of-sight transmission. Another standards extension coming later this year will add mobile capability.

What can you do with WiMAX? Well, you might be getting broadband Internet service to your home or business up to 31 miles away from the WISP tower. No DSL or Cable Modem service in rural areas? No problem. Closer to the towers you'll be able to get wireless Internet service to an indoor antenna. Pick up a WiMAX modem at a retail store and sign up for service. You'll install it yourself and be operating in minutes instead of waiting days or weeks for someone to string wires through the yard or mount antenna masts on your roof.

The real excitement comes in a couple of years when laptops and PDAs incorporate WiMAX chips the way they include WiFi now. Then you'll take your ISP with you and not have to worry about finding a hotspot. Since WiMAX is being billed as a wireless MAN or Metropolitan Area Network, the infrastructure will be in place for mobile Internet services in cars and trucks. Think real time weather radar, maps with updating road conditions, store directions with what's on sale, streaming music and mobile VoIP telephones, for just a few ideas.

In the beginning, WiMAX is being touted as a means to eliminate wires and feed existing broadband access such as WiFi hotspots. Yeah, there probably will be some of that initially. Once the technology is in full production and the complete standards package is in place, the genie will really come out of the bottle. WiFi with its puny range has never been much of a threat to any incumbent telecom service. WiMAX with 70 Mbps bandwidth and 31 miles range has the potential to start gobbling up competitors. Who knows? Ten years from now we might be WiMAXed out. Or.... Wire line Internet service providers and even whole telephone companies might be considered as quaint as rotary dial phones or dial-up bulletin boards.

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