Sanity check: Is WiMAX almost here and will it unlock the next stage of the Internet?

During this decade, few technologies have been as widely hyped and as broadly anticipated as WiMAX. But how close is it to commercial availability, what will the real world WiMAX features look like, and does it represent the next stage of the Internet? This week's Tech Sanity Check has the answers.

To cut through the haze of WiMAX buzz and hype, I went to Chicago on September 25-27 for WiMAX World 2007 to see how close WiMAX is to being widely available and to get a clear view of what the services are going to look like when they go live. Most of all, I wanted to get a sense for whether WiMAX is truly on track to revolutionize mobile Internet access and bring fast, affordable broadband Internet to new corners of the world, or if it is being hyped by overzealous expectations.

I'm glad to report - and you can mark it down in pen - that 2008 will be the year that WiMAX arrives in full force as a new option for Internet access. In the United States, WiMAX will be available to more than 100 million people by the end of 2008, according to Sprint, and there are significant international WiMAX deployments happening in Asia, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and South America. There are even some niche players, like Xanadoo in Texas and Wateen in Pakistan and KT Telecom in South Korea (using a related technology called WiBro), that already have live deployments in action.

But what impressed me the most at WiMAX World was the huge vendor ecosystem that has coalesced around WiMAX. There were more exhibitors (350) at WiMAX World 2007 than there were at LinuxWorld 2007 (200) last month in San Francisco. The leading players in the WiMAX movement have taken a very open, standards-based, interoperable approach to the technology, and the response has been widespread participation from industry heavyweights plus a plethora of startups with solutions to help make WiMAX work or make it better.

The WiMAX leaders

While many players large and small exist in the WiMAX ecosystem, there are several leaders you should know if you want to understand the progress of WiMAX and who is driving it:
  • Sprint - The most prominent name in WiMAX in the United States is Sprint because it will be the first big national carrier to come to market with a WiMAX product. Sprint has branded its product Xohm and is acting much more like an ISP and an IT company than a telecom carrier in its approach to bringing WiMAX to market.
  • Intel - The world's leading chip-maker was the first IT giant to put its weight behind WiMAX and has been an influential factor ever since, as a member of the WiMAX Forum. In mid-2008, Intel will start embedding dual WiMAX/Wi-Fi chips (codenamed "Echo Peak") into its Centrino laptops. Intel has come to believe that establishing WiMAX Internet access is the key to creating demand for low-cost computers in emerging markets throughout the world.
  • Motorola - Motorola is both building out the network infrastructure to run WiMAX and producing many of the end-user client products that connect to WiMAX networks, from handsets to WiMAX broadband modems to smartphones and potentially even new mobile Internet devices. Motorola is building Sprint's WiMAX network in Chicago.
  • Samsung -Like Motorola, Samsung wants to build both WiMAX networks and some end-user WiMAX devices. Samsung is building the Sprint networks in the northeast corridor of the United States, including Washington D.C, New York, and Boston, and has already built the South Korean network, which is based on the related WiBro technology and has been running since 2006.
  • Alcatel-Lucent - These venerable network specialists have been into WiMAX since early 2005, and they are building WiMAX networks for multiple carriers in Latin America and a number of other carriers sprinkled throughout the globe.
  • Clearwire - This upstart, founded by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, is poised to become a key national WiMAX provider in the United States, with its WiMAX rollouts in 2008. Clearwire, which has gotten significant investments from Intel and Motorola, holds more wireless spectrum for WiMAX in the U.S. than anyone other than Sprint and has signed a WiMAX roaming agreement with Sprint so that users can traverse both networks. In 2008, Clearwire will likely start with small and mid-size cities, while Sprint will focus on the big metros.

The two types of WiMAX

It's important to understand that there are two types of WiMAX:

1. Fixed WiMAX This version of WiMAX is essentially the same as DSL or cable broadband Internet, except that there's a WiMAX modem to connect to your PC or router instead of a DSL or cable modem. Fixed WiMAX is sometimes referred to as 802.16d (or 802.16-2004) because that was the standard that originally defined it; however, it has since transcended that standard. The biggest advantage that Fixed WiMAX brings to the Internet landscape is that it is simpler, quicker, and more cost-effective to put up WiMAX towers and antennas (once you have the wireless frequency reserved) than it is to lay wire for DSL or cable lines. Thus, Fixed WiMAX has the potential to spread Internet access to a lot of new places that don't currently have affordable or effective broadband connections. 2. Mobile WiMAX This is sometimes referred to as 802.16e or 802.16e-2005 or just WiMAX "e." This is the latest version of the WiMAX standard, and it's the one that the vast majority of companies are currently focused on implementing. This version allows for roaming ("handoff") between WiMAX base stations and so it truly unleashes users for a mobile Internet experience. This is the standard that both Sprint and Clearwire are using for the WiMAX networks they are deploying in 2008. The other significant feature of 802.16e is that it is equally as effective for providing Fixed Wireless as 802.16d.

Is this the next stage?

As you've probably realized, Mobile 802.16e is the technology that has the potential to change the scope of the Internet. Sprint and Clearwire are planning to roll out 802.16e to provide both Fixed and Mobile WiMAX, enabling users to have Fixed WiMAX in their home or small business and to use Mobile WiMAX with a laptop, smartphone, or mobile Internet device when they are on the move -- all with one broadband account. Sprint Business will also be using the 802.16e deployments to offer mobile Internet to enterprises for their road warriors and Fixed WiMAX for their remote offices.

Thus, the primary benefit of WiMAX is to fill in the gaps of the Internet -- the gaps of coverage in rural and remote areas and developing countries where it has been economically unfeasible to bring inexpensive broadband, and the gaps in coverage that mobile users have to deal with when they are away from their office, home, or Wi-Fi hotspot. The gaps won't all be filled in 2008. It will take years for this build-out to happen, but we'll start to see some of the gaps closing next year.

A secondary benefit of WiMAX will be the ability to bring Internet connectivity to a lot more devices, including some that haven't even been conceived yet because of the stationary nature of today's Internet. Intel and others are already ramping up mass production of WiMAX chips so that they can be inexpensively embedded in lots of different devices and equipment, including cars, digital cameras, traffic lights, TVs, surveillance cameras, and medical equipment -- to cite just a few potential examples.

With lots of different devices connecting via WiMAX and the potential for roaming from fixed connections at work and home to mobile broadband on the move, Sprint has wisely decided to break out of a cellular model in pricing its WiMAX solution.

Although all of the details weren't released, during WiMAX World 2007, Sprint CTO Barry West stated that Sprint's WiMAX would be focused on affordability and meeting the varying needs of users. West said that there would not be contracts like the ones in the cellular business, but that there would be subscriptions in which the user would get cost savings with longer terms. There is also a widespread -- albeit unconfirmed -- expectation that this will include pay-as-you-go and prepaid options as well.

WiMAX is like a young athlete whose training has nearly come to an end and now it's time to step out on the field and compete with the big boys. WiMAX has a powerful ecosystem, key support from important players in the technology industry, and the potential to solve an important set of problems that have been elusive and difficult to resolve up until now.

Although WiMAX will clearly jump into the game in 2008, its success as catalyst for the next stage of the Internet will depend upon several factors:

  1. Will the Sprint and Clearwire deployments roll out on schedule? Will other small carriers roll out WiMAX quickly in local markets? Will the international deployments happen on time?
  2. Will Mobile WiMAX achieve average speeds of 2-4 Mbps and will the user experience be consistent and satisfying?
  3. Will any unforeseen technical challenges arise that will slow down the deployments or compromise the quality of the connections?

If WiMAX deploys on schedule and with the kind of mobility, performance, and affordability that vendors are promising, it will almost certainly unleash a new era of possibilities and innovation in communications and technology. There's a lot of optimism from key industry leaders that we are on the cusp of a major breakthrough, but WiMAX still has to prove it in the field in 2008.

Next week, we will delve into the standards-based technology that drives WiMAX and look at whether it truly has advantages over 3G cellular, which is gearing up to compete with WiMAX for mobile Internet access. In two weeks, we will wrap up this three-part series with a look at whether WiMAX can remain an open platform and avoid being hijacked by a few big vendors.

What kind of impact could WiMAX have in your organization? What kind of impact could it have on your personal Internet experience? Join the discussion.

For more on the vendors and gadgets from WiMAX World 2007, take a look at my photo gallery: