What Will WiMax Do For You?


The WiMax wireless standard promises more robust wireless service, greater reliability and power. Will it deliver?

Feb. 06, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Wireless Interoperability for Microwave Transmission, more commonly known as WiMax, is a technology based on the IEEE 802.16 standard used for wireless transmission of data. The 802.16 standard has been through a few evolutionary stages, with 802.16e the most recent updated form. The WiMax Forum, the group responsible for coining the name “WiMax” and charged with promoting interoperability and certifying new WiMax products, claims that by 2011 there will be over 1,000 certified WiMax products available. Will the confluence of must-have wireless devices and an expanded WiMax network have subscribers scrambling to sign up?

A 4G Network
The cellular and mobile broadband industry love anamorphisms. The latest—4G—is the category into which WiMax falls, accompanied by LTE (“Long-Term Evolution). From a consumer perspective, a WiMax 4G network can bring wireless broadband Internet into the home (the “fixed” or “stationary” solution) or bring faster data downloads and uploads for users on the go (the “mobile” solution).

WiMax service into the home operates like any good WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider), or regular DSL or cable ISP for that matter—a modem, or “Customer Premises Equipment” (CPE) acts as a gateway to the Internet, and users can plug their computer into the modem or attach a wireless router to create a home Wi-Fi network. The WiMax modem connects to the WiMax network wirelessly, a boon especially to those living within a WiMax network range but not serviced by cable or DSL. 

The “last mile” solution made possible by the WiMax standard may not bring FiOS speeds, but it beats 3G speeds from the cellular service providers’ data plans. Clearwire—who has deployed their 4G WiMax networks in Baltimore and Portland, Oregon—claims 4 to 6 Megabit downstream speeds and 1 to 2 Megabit upstream speeds. For customers in Baltimore and Portland, the WiMax network essentially turns the whole city into one big Wi-Fi hotspot.

“This is not just another wireless carrier,” says Atish Gude, senior Vice President for Clearwire. Gude adds that the majority of current customers subscribing to either Clearwire’s XOHM (Baltimore) WiMax service or Clear (Portland) WiMax service have access to other competitive Internet service, but chose the WiMax route instead. 

Maximum Mobility
So why go WiMax? For those in a WiMax service area, the answer is mobility. In addition to the home modem solution mentioned above, subscribers can elect to supplement their service package with a mobile component. For Clearwire customers, this might mean a USB-modem for the laptop, with which Internet service is granted anywhere in the network. “80 to 90 percent of users almost never leave their home network,” says Gude, commenting on naysayers who would insist on a “nation-wide” network advertised by so many cellular carriers. “80 to 90 percent of usage is within 20 miles of the home.”

The mobile plans for the Clear brand out of Portland offer something for everyone, starting out at a $10 day pass (24 hours unlimited service) and topping out with the $50/month unlimited plan. There’s also the “Frequent” plan for $40/month (2GB limit) and the “Occasional” plan for $30/month (200MB limit). “We’re still in the early stages of the offer models to see what works and what doesn’t,” says Gude.

Sprint Nextel, early players in Baltimore’s XOHM service before it merged with Clearwire, are currently offering a dual-mode USB-modem that can operate on a both Sprint’s more widespread 3G network and the Baltimore-and-Portland-centric 4G WiMax network. “It’s all about mobility,” says John Polivka of Sprint Nextel. “The dual-mode card provides the customer the versatility of either 3G EVDO Rev A access or 4G WiMax access in coverage areas.”

With more cities and major metropolitan areas to go live to WiMax in 2009, the true mobility of more nation-wide coverage could compel greater numbers of consumers to sign up for service. The shear amount of licensed spectrum available to Clearwire (around 120 MHz, compared to the 10-20 MHz of many cellular 3G networks) would suggest a guarantee that cost/Mb is kept low and the dropped service issues of 3G networks or Wi-Fi hotspots due to interference won’t apply. 

Device Delight
A chicken or the egg question remains: What comes first, the WiMax network—ready to meet the anticipated demands of the Internet-tethered, on-the-go, would-be subscribers, or the consumers pressing for a service provider who can meet their Internet-tethered, on-the-go needs?

For any new carrier or service provider to succeed it needs customers and subscribers. In some ways it helps to compare the WiMax roll-out to Verizon’s successful deployment of its fiber optic FiOS infrastructure. In that case, the consumer demand for faster Internet and less-compressed HDTV was clear, and FiOS availability in new areas has been met with enthusiastic and eager subscribers. Will WiMax meet with the same results? It stands to reason that the residential/consumer WiMax network service providers (in this country, Clearwire) cannot continue to expand service into other major metropolitan areas if there is no demand for the service.

In the case of a WiMax, demand for the service is linked directly to the existence of killer mobile devices in the hands of would-be subscribers and the killer applications that run on them. “You need the right content and applications, the right devices, and the right network,” says Gude. “We already have the right content—the Internet.” The WiMax standard, coupled with Clearwire’s impressive licensed spectrum, provides the right network at the lowest cost per Megabit, according to Gude. “As newer devices come in, there will be even greater penetration.” Most in the WiMax industry point to the iPhone as the game-changing device, keeping users connected to the Internet (via 3G and Wi-Fi) while on the go. Owners of iPhones have only to imagine their same usage at much faster speeds to understand what WiMax service can do for the mobile broadband experience.

Fortunately for Clearwire and any other would-be WiMax service providers there are a number of consumer electronic devices hitting the market with built-in WiMax technology. Intel is one heavy hitter to board the WiMax train. The famous “Intel inside” catch phrase can now be “WiMax included” for a few notebooks and laptops on the market. Manufacturers of laptops and notebooks with the Intel Centrino 2 processor can build in the optional WiMax technology, just like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability. Lenovo and Acer and Toshiba are three such manufacturers offering built-in WiMax capability in their laptops. In Lenovo’s ThinkPad line of notebooks, the T400, SL300 and SL500 can all come with the WiMax module; their IdeaPad Y530 has that option as well. Acer’s compact Aspire One netbook is another device with optional WiMax networking included. Toshiba’s Portege R600 and Satellite U400 also have the option of WiMax wireless capability. Dell, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are all poised to make WiMax networking an option in some of their notebook products for 2009.

How long until the WiMax module is standard in all netbooks, notebooks, and laptops, just as Wi-Fi is today? “That’s certainly where we believe the future to be,” says Julie Copernoll, the director of marketing for Intel’s WiMax Program Office. In the meantime, Copernoll asks, “If you are going to buy a brand new PC, why wouldn’t you include the new feature?” A brief glance at the cost difference between a laptop with WiMax to one without suggests that the inclusion of the WiMax chip comes at a fairly negligible expense—good news to those planning for the WiMax future. 

The ability to push more data wirelessly and reliably over a WiMax network should no doubt prompt the creation of more Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), and a host of applications that extend beyond the consumer electronic world but all meant to operate in a WiMax world. “Think about parking meters enabled with WiMax technology,” says Gude. “Customers could be alerted when a spot opens up. Wireless cameras can monitor traffic and accidents.” Copernoll painted a more consumer-oriented picture, imagining a digital camera with WiMax built in. “Rather than having to go home and connect to the computer, you might just press a button to instantly upload photos to the web.” Indeed, with an entire metropolitan area WiMaxed, the wireless possibilities on both the consumer and commercial side of things seem endless. 

To see the future of WiMax in our country, one might look across the ocean to Korea, where almost a half a million people are connected to a WiMax network (called WiBro in Korea). Manufacturers Samsung and LG have both launched a few WiMax smartphones onto the Korean market, designed to tap into the 13 Mbps speeds available on their network for video streaming and other multimedia data communications in addition to voice service. 

Lingering Questions
WiMax is here, and it’s only going to spread nationwide. A few questions remain. How will the WiMax service provider track the usage of the network as WiMax-enable devices proliferate? Is it by device or by user? One subscriber may have multiple devices—a home computer, a netbook, a mobile Internet device and a camera, for example—all connected to the WiMax network. How does a Clearwire track usage of all those devices? Will a subscription to their “Unlimited” service plan enable access to the network from any device by that one subscriber? Currently they only have to track subscribers who might have the “Home and Away” package that covers the home modem and USB-modem for a laptop. What happens when that subscriber wants to double the devices to be used on the network? Will monthly costs go up? Dr. Mohammed Shakouri, vice president of marketing for the WiMax Forum, has an answer to these questions. “Service providers will have plans so consumers can connect up to X number of devices for a flat rate,” he says. “It is pretty clear that you cannot limit the data.” 

The ease of connection to the WiMax network is another consideration. WiMax-enable laptops and netbooks from various OEMs may contain different “Connection Managers.” Just how easily a subscriber can connect to, and interface with, the network is a consideration a consumer should be making before purchasing a WiMax-enabled device or product. “Ease of use and ease of association are questions to be asked,” says Copernoll. Will it be as simple as connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot or a 3G network through a cellular service provider? 

Shakouri of the WiMax Forum sums it up nicely: “The Internet has gone from a box in the home to you.” The mobile individual’s constant and growing need for bandwidth-hungry Internet applications—be it social networking, streaming video, even online gaming—will require a wide area, high bandwidth wireless network. Which is just what WiMax provides.

Click here to view WiMax enabled laptops and modems.

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