WiMAX could wind up anywhere

Mobile WiMAX equipment has been on the market for a year, but it’s still not clear whether the predominant application for the wireless technology will be high-speed Internet access, a backhaul for connecting municipal Wi-Fi networks, an access technology for mobile workers or a combination of all three.

The Worldwide Interoper-ability for Microwave Access is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.16 series of standards, which provides bandwidth of up to 40 Megabits per second per channel at distances of up to 10 km. Major network equipment manufacturers, such as Nortel Networks and Lucent-Alcatel, have announced WiMAX-compliant base stations, while other vendors such as Intel Corp. plan to include the technology in PC cards.

“In the early stages, I see WiMAX being used as a backhaul technology” for municipal networks with Wi-Fi access points, said Ronald Gruia, principal analyst for emerging communications at Frost & Sullivan Canada.

“The underlying access technology is Wi-Fi, but then you use WiMAX as a backhaul.”

But Wi-Fi has some disadvantages on outdoor networks, said Sudeep Gupta, business development manager for broadband wireless access at Alcatel-Lucent North America, which manufactures the Evolium base station, which uses the IEEE 802.16e mobile WiMAX protocol.

“Wi-Fi works great when you’re talking about a hot spot application, particularly in buildings for enterprises,” Gupta said. “Once you start stepping outside of that – between buildings or in the middle of a city – Wi-Fi doesn’t make a lot of sense because it’s not cost-effective. WiMAX makes a lot more sense because it provides greater range and greater security than Wi-Fi.”

Useful in remote areas

WiMAX will not replace Wi-Fi or third-generation cellular technologies, but can be useful in remote areas where users need high-speed access, he said. It is well-suited for IP communications applications using session-initiation protocol (SIP). SIP, an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standard used in some IP phones and private branch exchanges, is designed to initiate voice, video, chat or other real-time communications between enterprise users.

Gupta said presence awareness applications – which let workers determine how to reach colleagues – on voice and video networks can take advantage of WiMAX technology.

Another major application will be high-speed Internet access from competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), said Daryl Schoolar, senior analyst for networking at In-Stat, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm.

“I could see WiMAX being used by a CLEC offering voice and data,” Schoolar said.

He said he does not anticipate many service providers will use it as a backhaul technology because it uses licensed spectrum. “Licenced spectrum is a rare commodity,” he said, adding manufacturers are unlikely to ship handsets with WiMAX chips until at least 2009.

WiMAX will be popular in areas of the world with inadequate wired infrastructure, said Tara Howard, analyst for enabling technologies, service provider at the Boston-based Yankee Group.

“Clearly WiMAX is a more cost-effective solution than actually laying fibre or some other wireline technology, but in more established markets such as North America, it’s going to provide almost this whole personal broadband experience.”

But Howard warned not all equipment will conform to the 802.16e technology, ratified in late 2005.

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