Wi-Fi

Cheat Sheet: WiMax

Why the wireless firms are mad for Wi-Fi's big brother
WiMax? Sounds like a buzzword. Tell me about the technology.
It's not just a technology.

Right. So what is it then?
The WiMax Forum, where the story begins, is a coalition of tech firms that got together in 2001 to promote the 802.16 wireless standard for broadband and push interoperability of phones and other technology based on the standard, which is now known as WiMax. Dell, Fujitsu and Intel figure in the member roster along with over 100 other firms.

Go on - what does it actually do?
WiMax is often described as super-powered Wi-Fi. Using the WiMax standard means you can wirelessly access broadband networks, just like with Wi-Fi, only over much greater distances. With Wi-Fi, you're looking at being in the same building as the access point; with WiMax, it's more like being in the same town or the next town over. Access over 10 or more miles is very doable, 30-odd miles is the top whack.

OK, sounds alright, but why the fuss?
For a couple of reasons. One, for those people still out of the reach of normal broadband networks it could prove to be a nifty way of getting online without wrangling with the operators. The operators are also keen on it, because it's a lot cheaper than laying cable to get access to remote towns. Some people are whispering it could be a way to get the UK 100 per cent broadband-enabled.

The other thing that some people are whispering is that WiMax will kill off Wi-Fi before it's really got going and may even give that other tech du jour, VoIP, a proper boost - people would be able to make voice calls via internet telephony for free on the move instead of paying for mobile calls.

I wouldn't mind that. So when can I can get me some of that WiMax?
Not for a while yet. It's likely to be 2006 or 2007 before WiMax really starts to get itself noticed.

Why's that?
Well, for one thing, Intel has said it will start putting WiMax into laptops around that time.

It's also got a lot to do with frequency. The WiMax cheerleaders are trying to find a way of fitting the service in to the already crowded microwave bands it's designed to use.

Cost also has a bit of a role to play - it's too expensive for large scale deployments at the moment. Once more companies get involved, and the right silicon for the job gets manufactured, prices will come down and usage will go up.

Who's getting involved?
If you take a quick look down the WiMax Forum's list of members, there's a good number of mobile firms and telcos in there - BT, Deutsche Telekom, Motorola and Siemens to name a few. One theory is they see WiMax as a bit of a threat to their business and want to get a slice of the emerging WiMax pie in case they lose some of their mobile business when the tech takes off.

02 recently told silicon.com that it was looking into the technology and, while the dreams of a wireless world may be some way off yet, WiMax has got a lot more to give the mobile industry.

Like what?
In a letter: 'e'.

What?
802.16.e - it's a particular version of the standard meant for mobile technologies, which should mean handset makers would be able to churn out devices that could work over WiMax or, what's perhaps more expected, is to put the technology into data cards either alongside or instead of GPRS and 3G.

Sounds tempting. I bet Nokia want some of the action, eh?
Funny you should say that...

Isn't it?
...but the Mighty Finn was one of the founding companies of the WiMax Forum back in the day but recently left the fold when its membership expired, saying the company had decided to focus its efforts on other technologies. It rejoined the Forum shortly after, however.

ZDNet UK's Rupert Goodwins contributed to this report

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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