Until now, broadband wireless has been a strictly local experience. Current off-the-shelf wireless networks reach no more than a few dozen metres. Add specialist access point equipment and boosted aerials and a range of a kilometre or so is possible, with external antennae. But wireless networks could soon be appearing with a reach of some 50km and data speeds of up to 70Mbit/s.
Such a breakthrough in wireless technology could have far-reaching implications for the mobile worker. Hopes are being pinned on the IEEE 802.16 wireless standard, known as WiMax. This is essentially a souped-up version of ‘WiFi’ wireless LAN systems operating in boardrooms, airport lounges and coffee shops today.
WiMax has secured backing from networking specialists such as Intel, Cisco and Alcatel, as well as a raft of start-up ventures including Alvarion. Some cellular network manufactures are staying out, including Nokia and Ericsson, which are perhaps worried about cannibalising their 3G revenue. But generally, WiMax has gained widespread industry support.
The first wave of WiMax products, available in early 2005, will be transceivers designed to provide back-haul links to WiFi access points. This will make it far easier and cheaper for service providers to deliver connectivity either to public hotspots such as cafes or transport hubs, or to businesses that want to augment their campus networks.
The second stage of development, the 802.16d standard, will see WiMax-based home access points. From the second half of 2005, companies will be able to use the WiMax infrastructure to run broadband connections to consumers.
Existing ISPs and telecoms companies could well opt for this as an alternative to ADSL or cable, not least because of WiMax’s vastly superior speeds in the critical ‘last mile’ between the central office and the subscriber’s home.
WiMax connections should also provide a boost to the alternative carrier market, as companies could set up their transmission infrastructure and beam signals directly to homes or businesses, bypassing the local phone company. If ISPs add in television or voice telephony services (using voice over IP) they could compete with incumbents, although to do so might require regulatory approval.
The third stage of WiMax deployment will be of most interest to businesses. Although it is still two to three years out, the 802.16e standard will provide full WiMax mobility, with WiMax cards available for computers and handheld devices.
The bandwidth available is impressive, at least when set against WiFi and 3G cellular technologies. For enterprises, though, it is the reach that might be more appealing. A coverage area of 50km allows a company to cover a campus with ease from one transmitter; a bank, retail store or cafe chain could cover all its branches in a city. Running WiMax with variants on the bandwidth sharing and ‘secure tunnelling’ services already on offer for WiFi, or using a varient of VPN technology, should allow more than one business to share a common connection from a commercial service provider.
If technology to allow seamless roaming between WiMax sites can be developed, companies in fields such as transport and distribution could use in-vehicle WiMax access as part of a national communications and telemetry network, possibly with standard WiFi or cellular access to ‘fill in’ coverage gaps.
Anders Huge, director of Intel’s wireless competence centre in Stockholm, believes that hot spot service providers will be among the initial adopters of WiMax, as well as companies that want quick access to a broadband network. He believes there will also be an early market for businesses, such as entertainment, sports and construction, that need to set up ad hoc networks for a short period of time, perhaps as little as a month. Intel believes that consumers and small businesses will be the next group to adopt WiMax as they face greater bandwidth constraints than enterprises that are likely already to have good leased-line connections. “It will be areas where there is no-one putting down cable. It will compete with ADSL,” says Huge. One advantage of WiMax, he points out, is that unlike existing wireless LAN technologies, WiMax is designed to operate with quality of service guarantees.
Where WiMax is set to co-exist, rather than compete, with existing technologies is in the LAN market. Few industry observers expect WiMax to compete initially with wired networking – where speeds are rising and costs falling – or even with slower, 802.11 based wireless links on enterprise LANs.
WiMax hardware is likely to maintain a price premium above slower technologies, wired and unwired, until 2008 or even later. A more likely scenario is that WiMax will provide back-haul, LAN bridging and campus level services as part of a broader networking portfolio.