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Anthony Plewes

WiMax is the answer to everything, or so it seems: a wireless alternative to DSL and cable modems; a bigger and better technology for hotspots; the savior of rural broadband; even a 3G killer.

The hype is being fed by Intel’s commitment to the technology. The chip giant’s marketing machine is already comparing WiMax’s expected impact on DSL and cable modems to the impact that mobile telephony has had on fixed telephony. Intel’s support could do for WiMax what it did with Centrino for Wi-Fi.

One of the problems faced by WiMax in this early stage of its development is that over-enthusiastic vendors are talking up different parts of the technology with no clear message about its best use. Being promoted in such diverse applications–from mobile broadband to backhaul and rural broadband–is surely disingenuous.

WiMax must be seen in context with its rivals–there have been a number of fixed wireless access technologies such as LMDS and MMDS in the wide area. Wi-Fi has supposedly sown up the LAN and Bluetooth the personal area network. If you want mobility, well hell, the world’s covered with mobile base stations.

So where does WiMax fit?

WiMax is the marketing name given to the wireless IP data technology based on the IEEE 802.16 standard. It was initially developed to support point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access systems operating in the 10 to 66GHz waveband. It has a number of implementations that can support a huge range of different application types from standard fixed wireless broadband through to mobile data in handsets.

Its main target is the metropolitan space. Certainly the technology is better architected for broadband outdoors than Wi-Fi. A single WiMax network base station for mobile devices, for example, is expected to offer a range of 3km.

As with all technologies, there is a forum dedicated to confusing the already confused technology. The WiMax Forum is developing standards for fixed, nomadic, portable and eventually wireless broadband connectivity, without needing direct line of sight to a base station. It says the technology should be able to deliver up to 40Mbps per channel for fixed and portable applications, and up to 15Mbps for the mobile version. The latter variation is not expected to become viable until at least 2007.

While having Intel on board undoubtedly helps WiMax stand out in the crowded wireless technology arena, it does not guarantee the technology’s success. Intel does not have a flawless record in identifying successful future technologies. Before it jumped on the Wi-Fi bandwagon, Intel was the main protagonist in the defunct HomeRF technology. Its switch to Wi-Fi resulted in more than a little egg on its face.

The overhyping of the latest wireless technology in certain parts of the press should also be ringing alarm bells in WiMax HQ. When Radioactive contacted the WiMax Forum, a board member told us that many of the more excessive claims are made by small start-ups. “Speeds of 70Mbps are rubbish,” he said. “One to 10 is much more realistic.”

Intel may be happy to talk up WiMax but other tech leaders are more circumspect. Cisco CTO Charles Giancarlo, for example, recently poured cold water on the technology, mainly because its application will be covered by third-generation mobile networks, which should be in action globally by the time products hit the market.

For WiMax to gain focus and maturity it will need widespread industry support–not just from those involved with developing the technology’s standard but also from vendors of competing technologies. In fact, think complementary rather than competitive. WiMax could, for example, mesh well with Wi-Fi. WiMax could be used to pipe broadband into a building while Wi-Fi would provide in-building coverage. This could be easily achieved by developing a WiMax CPE with a built-in Wi-Fi access point.

The WiMax Forum is taking its time setting up the procedures for ensuring interoperability. This is hardly surprising given that many on the board are veterans of fixed wireless broadband technology, which was severely hamstrung by the lack of market standardization.

The Forum plans to open its labs in Spain around June 2005 and start issuing interoperability certifications from September. The labs will test products for interoperability and will issue conforming products with a stamp. This means the first certified WiMax should come to market in late 2005 through 2006.

However, this is not stopping some operators deploying pre-standard products. BT, for example, has deployed Alvarion technology for rural broadband coverage in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The vendor is a member of the WiMax board and claims the technology will be compatible with the WiMax standards.

But despite overwhelming interest in the press, if WiMax goes away, it wouldn’t be the first time a wireless technology faded from view. Just remember the fate of fixed wireless broadband technologies LMDS and MMDS. Spectrum auctions for these WiMax forerunners went down like the proverbial lead balloon. A lack of standardization meant expensive network equipment and a very real fear of being lumbered with a technology white elephant – so it’s no surprise operators were not gushing.

The WiMax Forum must ensure the technology is attractive enough for operators to provide mobile data services. WiMax has already irked vendors of existing technologies, in particular the 3G equipment makers.

A recent study published by Analysys warned that WiMax vendors will have major challenges selling the technology to mobile operators over the options they have in 3G enhancements such as HSDPA. They study said the WiMax Forum needs to better clarify the capability and role of its mobile variant so that operators will start to take it seriously.

Currently the technology is a long way from being successful. Products have not yet been launched, and all the hype is giving WiMax an air of style over substance. It is vital that WiMax’s advocates design a business case for alternative broadband operators and get the mobile operators onside. If they are unable to do this then WiMax is likely to be relegated to a niche last-mile access technology, such as rural broadband, rather than a key player in a grand scheme for ubiquitous metropolitan broadband.

Anthony Plewes is a freelance journalist and a director of Futurity Media.