Broadband wireless access is gaining increasing attention in the marketplace and Wi-Max is being touted as the next big thing. But a lot of people are still wondering what exactly Wi-Max is.

“”Is it next-generation Wi-Fi, is it a fixed wireless solution? Is it a 3G substitute? Is it one technology

or is it a standard evolution?”” says Roberta Wiggins, a research fellow with the Yankee Group’s wireless communications practice. She describes Wi-Max as a standard evolution of the existing Wi-Fi standard. Wi-Fi is limited to 30 metres, while Wi-Max will extend 30 kilometres — extending the reach of broadband metropolitan networks beyond local-area coverage.

The Wi-Max Forum was established to ensure interoperability of systems based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.16 standard. The pending version of the mobility version (802.16e) is expected to be finalized late this year.

Wireless carriers have a variety of service options — such as Wi-Max, flash-Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and Time Division Duplexing-Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (TDD-WCDMA) — that may compete or work in conjunction with each other, according to a recent Yankee Group report, Demystifying Next-Generation Broadband Wireless and the Role of Wi-Max. Although alternative technologies such as Wi-Max offer performance improvements over mainstream options, they lack economies of scale and may have supply chain challenges.

“”There’s already a de facto technology out there — that’s DSL — so it won’t necessarily replace all of that, but it will create extensions either as a fixed technology or as a mobile technology,”” says Wiggins. But there’s a lot of market hype around Wi-Max — and that could be its downfall. If it can’t live up to people’s expectations, she says, it may be doomed before it ever arrives.

“”I think everybody’s interested in Wi-Max because there’s an idea that it’s Wi-Fi on steroids, and it isn’t,”” says Chad Pralle, strategic marketing director with SR Telecom Inc., a Montreal-based wireless equipment manufacturer that has launched an OFDMA-based Wi-Max-ready platform, symmetry. “”It’s different in a very key way and that is Wi-Fi is not a carrier-class product, and I don’t see Wi-Max being deployed in any way near the way Wi-Fi is.””

The advantage of Wi-Max, however, is that it’s rolling together all of the pieces that individual companies have come up with into one coherent standard. “”So finally we actually will have a technology that will have very good shared packet access,”” he says.

While some companies are waiting until Wi-Max hits the desired price points, others are deciding to deploy Wi-Max-ready platforms. But Pralle says no one’s really talking about deploying broadband wireless solutions that don’t have at least some kind of migration path to Wi-Max.

“”From a carrier perspective, the last thing you want to do is sell systems into the market that have to be ripped out and replaced,”” says Jim Miller, executive vice-president of global sales, marketing and business development with Adaptix in Bothell, Wash. The company’s infrastructure can be configured to deliver rural services up to 30 km in radius or serve high-density urban markets with base stations spaced 1-4 km apart; it’s software upgradeable, he says, so customers won’t have to replace their hardware when the standard is ratified. A ratified standard will allow Wi-Max to compete with cellular technologies, Miller says, but adds carriers have already invested billions of dollars in their networks.

“”To make a 180-degree move in this direction [to Wi-Max] will be virtually impossible,”” he says. In developing countries, however, their primary method of deployment could be broadband wireless. In developed countries, he sees Wi-Max fitting into niche applications and metro hot zone networks, using spectrum that doesn’t conflict with cellular.

Higgins predicts cities will use broadband wireless to connect government buildings and possibly provide free public access. It could also be used as a temporary broadband solution for special events or construction sites.

Telabria has announced plans to build the first Wi-Max network — dubbed SkyPilot — as a backhaul for its installed base of Wi-Fi hotspots in southeastern England.

One advantage of Wi-Max is the momentum behind it; Intel is committed to the standard, as are the 200 members of the Wi-Max Forum. Intel’s long-term plan is to integrate Wi-Max into hybrid devices that support both Wi-Fi and Wi-Max, and down the road replace Wi-Fi with Wi-Max, says Wiggins.

“”But that’s 2010 before that’s really a reality.””

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