Time to look at WiMax

WiMax isn’t exactly a new technology. WiMax, a broadband wireless standard, has been on the horizon for a few years now. When it didn’t appear to be making rapid development progress, some people wrote it off, believing it was one of those technologies that wind up being more hype than reality.

Now though it looks unlikely that WiMax will be relegated to the dustbin of failed technologies. Intel has begun some serious WiMax trials and hopes to have WiMax chipsets in laptops by some time in 2007. WiMax equipment vendors, such as Redline Communications Inc. and Aperto Networks Inc. have been publicly demonstrating their gear at tradeshows and events. Certification testing for fixed WiMax systems based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard is set to begin this month.

Why is there so much renewed hype surrounding WiMax? In a nutshell, WiMax offers DSL-type speeds without the need for a last-mile wireless connection into an office building or home. This makes it an ideal tool for service providers hoping to compete with incumbents offering either cable or DSL.

WiMax could also carve out a space in the mobile world, complementing, or replacing, Wi-Fi and 3G networks. WiMax has a much longer range than Wi-Fi and doesn’t require line-of-sight for a connection. But that doesn’t necessarily mean WiMax will replace Wi-Fi. In the mobile world, users may wind up with a mix of Wi-Fi as an in-building technology, WiMax as an outdoor link, where available, and 3G wireless filling in the gaps.

Of course this grand WiMax vision depends on the technology making economic sense. Carriers aren’t going to invest much in WiMax rollouts if they can’t make a profit by selling fixed services at a price point close to the cost of DSL or broadband cable, or if they can’t find bandwidth-hungry applications to justify a broad rollout of a mobile WiMax offering.

Carriers are definitely interested in WiMax. In the U.S., AT&T and BellSouth are both testing WiMax technology with business customers. In Canada, both Rogers Wireless and Bell Canada have ties to the pre-WiMax Inukshuk network which will offer broadband wireless to underserved communities across Canada. (Rogers Wireless participated in the initial Inukshuk launch. Bell got into the venture by taking a stake in investment firm NR Communications, which is an Inukshuk investor.)

Bell Canada also has a partnership with broadband wireless provider Clearwire, which will provide voice over IP services across North America. Like Inukshuk, Clearwire uses pre-WiMax equipment.

What’s all this mean for the enterprise? It’s still too early to tell for sure. It’s unlikely WiMax will truly get rolling until 2007.

But if WiMax does get a foothold in the market, enterprises will have more options in rolling broadband out to remote and home offices. They should also look at how mobile WiMax services might impact their mobile workforces in terms of additional bandwidth-hungry applications that could be made available to mobile workers.

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