WiMax in 2010: Too little, too late?

WiMax has been promised "any day now" for years.

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Computerworld |  Mobile & Wireless, Clearwire, WiMax

Arthur Giftakis, vice president of engineering at Towerstream Corp., a national WiMax provider for businesses, believes WiMax will deliver "high-speed mobile services that consumers and business users alike are demanding more and more," such as the ability to watch sports highlights on a laptop on the train or download apps on a handheld device. "WiMax will enable you to do those things faster than previous technologies," he said in an e-mail interview.

WiMax incorporates quality of service technologies for prioritizing network traffic, and that is particularly important for voice-over-IP and video applications, noted Joel Payne, vice president of engineering and operations at Sparkplug Inc., a national Internet service provider serving the business market. In contrast, Wi-Fi access points can be overwhelmed by multiple clients demanding simultaneous access. "The WiMax protocol will be important for applications that require a lot of data to be transmitted on time, and to decrease packet loss and latency," said Payne via e-mail.

Jesse Jones, owner of Matanuska Wireless, a data communications company in Palmer, Alaska, agreed, citing Internet Protocol television as a technology that can greatly benefit from improved quality of service. "IPTV via WiMax is one of the most exciting developments," Jones said in an e-mail interview. However, he added, "there is no word yet" on when the first working IPTV via WiMax models will be available.

How fast, how far, how much?

Just how high-speed is WiMax? The honest answer is "it depends."

"Speed and coverage area depend on several factors, such as frequency, terrain and tower height," Jones explained. "Any amateur radio operator or electrical engineer can tell you that propagation characteristics vary significantly based on frequency." In other words, a deployment on 700 MHz will have a different coverage area than one based on 2.3 GHz or 3.65 GHz.

Further, "the flat, open fields of Kansas will see different coverage on 3.65 GHz than my neighborhood nestled at the base of three mountain ranges in Alaska," he continued. A base station mounted 40 feet high on a tower will reach far fewer subscribers than if it was mounted 80 feet high. And the amount of throughput users see on a wireless connection is directly related to the signal quality, Jones said. "You really can't make general statements related to speed and coverage because not every deployment is the same."

Clearwire reports that its WiMax users are seeing average speeds of 4Mbit/sec. to 6Mbit/sec., with bursts exceeding 15Mbit/sec. -- about the same throughput that DSL services provide. To get that level of performance, you can expect to pay about as much as you currently do for DSL.

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