WiMax101: Explaining Intel’s newest wireless tech

There’s a lot of chatter about WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) nowadays and how dramatically it’ll change the way we connect online. There’s a lot of buzz in the air about this newest technology, and how it’ll bridge the gap between rural and urban broadband speeds. But what exactly is WiMax?
So, what is it?

WiMax, in the simplest sense of the word, is like Wi-Fi on steroids. It uses existing broadband technologies like traditional ADSL and connects subscribers through base stations (sort of like wireless routers you have at home, only, uh, on steroids) wirelessly. As Intel puts it, “WiMAX will do for broadband Internet access what the cell phone did for telephone service—give you access to the internet while you’re on the move. WiMAX is a Wide Area Network (WAN) technology.

Service providers will deploy a network of towers that will enable access over many kilometers. Internet access is instantly available anywhere within coverage areas. And like Wi-Fi, WiMAX is a standards-based technology that will unleash the benefits of open markets and global economies of scale to deliver the devices and services that consumers want. Mobile WiMAX is based on the IEEE 802.16e-2005 standard. And like the Wi-Fi standard (IEEE 802.11), IEEE 802.16 will continue to evolve with new innovations and features. WiMax aims to deliver broadband access over a wide metropolitan area, theoretically making hotspots irrelevant. If all goes according to plan, a single mobile WiMax base station can cover an area about 2 km. Think about it: you can have a hotspot that’s the size of your municipality. Cool isn’t it?

It’s also a great way to reach underserved communities that don’t get traditional data services, communities such as the ones located near rural areas. For fixed WiMAX deployments, service providers supply Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) that acts as a wireless “modem” to provide the interface to the WiMAX network for a specific location, such as a home, café, or office. WiMAX is also well suited for emerging markets as a cost-effective way to deliver high-speed internet.

So why not just supersize commercial routers? Isn’t that cheaper than spending millions of dollars on R&D?

Well, no, not exactly. While in concept they are the same, the technologies differ somewhat. Wi-Fi networks now use unlicensed ISM frequency bands which are prone to interference. WiMax, on the other hand, uses licensed spectrum owned by governments and wireless providers. Also, WiMax base station power levels are greater than what Wi-Fi networks can achieve, giving more range than traditional Wi-Fi networks.

Don’t we have something similar to that, like 3G?

Let’s not mix up the two technologies. 3G is built on legacy voice network, which means that it is limited to what the network can handle. Right now the speeds for 3G are theoretically at 7.2Mbps. To enjoy those speeds you’ll need to be sitting right underneath an upgraded tower. Mobile WiMax can give a theoretical maximum speed of 70Mbps, which is far superior to 3G. Of course, there are limitations to that. The number of users per tower affects bandwidth—and the more users, the slower the speed is. And since it’s a new technology, it might not be available everywhere. The cost of rolling out new equipment may limit its deployment initially. And unlike 3G, it’s so prevalent nowadays that it’ll be easier to list places not covered by 3G. The good news is that since Mobile WiMax is based on an internet protocol infrastructure, it is designed for future scalability, enabling a continuous increase in bit throughput with a decrease in cost.

Will I need new equipment once the service rolls out locally?

Absolutely. Unless you have an Intel Centrino 2 notebook with optional WiMAX built-in, you’d need to buy a WiMax dongle, card or router for your home to enjoy WiMax. Of course, this was the case when Wi-Fi rolled out a few years ago, and it’s not hard to imagine costs going down a few years down the road. You will also have to have a subscription of some sort to an operator. The good news is that the infrastructure is so flexible there will be several plans to choose from, and yes, it is possible to have prepaid plans right out of the gate.

BY John Nieves

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