Taking wireless networking to the MAX

WiFi and cell phones have been the darlings of the wireless stage, but in the coming years they could be sharing the spotlight with a technology called WiMAX.

Speed-wise, wireless networking remains a relative tortoise in comparison to the hares of the networking world that are wired with copper and fibre, offering a fraction of their throughput. But speed isn’t everything. Wireless can be cheaper and quicker to set up than pulling cables through an office or neighbourhood, and given their druthers (and the right mix of cost and capability), many users would likely opt for wireless over a fixed wired connection simply because of the convenience of cutting the network cord.

WiMAX is intriguing because, among other things, it combines the fast data transfer rates of WiFi-type technology and the range of a cell phone network. This year, the first commercial products that incorporate are scheduled to reach the market.

WiMAX is another name for the 802.16 standard, as defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), for building high-speed wireless networking products. Its backers include industry giants such as Intel, Alcatel, Nortel and Cisco. WiMAX is an Internet Protocol (IP)-based technology, which means all types of communication – from voice to data to video – can move as packets over the same network. Experts say WiMAX will offer a potential rate of 75 megabits per second and a coverage distance of more than 50 kilometres.

Note the word “potential.” The technology is still being developed, and that kind of performance is, in truth, achieved under the most optimal of conditions.

Kelly Kanellakis, the former Canadian director of technology for a U.S.-based network equipment vendor, points out that the farther you extend the range of WiMAX, the slower the speed of transmission. As a result, the first iterations of WiMAX technology will likely provide something closer to about 2 megabits per second for “fixed” link connections, where the source and destination for the signal are both stationary.

As products are built to the 802.16 specs and the technology is refined, things should improve dramatically, experts say.

WiMAX mobility products, designed for people on the move rather than for communication between stationary links, aren’t expected for at least four years. Even so, those businesses for whom a fixed-link, high-speed Internet connection is not currently available should definitely be watching WiMAX with interest in the short-term.

WiMAX is often described as wireless DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), and it’s where the technology is expected to first appear. What follows should be interesting. WiMAX is expected to evolve from connecting fixed locations such as homes and businesses, to a communications link running from a fixed source to a mobile destination, and ultimately to a totally mobile technology for cell phones and other wireless handheld communication devices. Besides basic data communications, it will bring speed that allows true mobile multimedia, including the ability to send and receive voice, data and video.

Even so, it’s not likely to replace other wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth and WiFi, as some experts have suggested. Kanellakis believes WiMAX is an important building block for the evolution of the “intelligent network.” He foresees a time in the not too distant future where, regardless of where you happen to be or what you’re doing, there will exist a wireless network of some sort.

Kanellakis describes one possible scenario involving all three wireless technologies. A person sits at a desk at work and connects her handheld gadget to a wireless notebook through Bluetooth. As she walks around the building, the device stays connected through WiFi. When she goes outside, the connection hands over to a WiMAX wireless WAN.

She might stop for a coffee and the connection would switch back to a WiFi “hotspot” within the caf

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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