Will WiMax save the day?
In theory, WiMax can blanket a city with affordable and fast wireless data service, but how often that will happen remains to be seen
- By John Pulley
- Jul 23, 2007
Faster than a speed-dialed cell call. More powerful than a Wi-Fi hot spot. Able to penetrate tall buildings with its signal.
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s WiMax!
With promises of fast data transfer speeds, easy product interoperability and support for mobile users, WiMax is being touted as the next big thing in wireless broadband and a perfect fit for bandwidth-hungry towns and cities.
But can WiMax deliver? If so, when? And is it the right wireless solution for every state and local application?
The uncertainty has kept many local government officials on the sidelines, but others are not waiting. In January, the city of Grand Rapids, Mich., entered into an agreement with Clearwire to build a WiMax network that blankets the local area. It will provide firefighters and police with applications such as real-time video streaming from moving emergency vehicles. And in March, Brownsville, Texas, contracted with IBM to build a $4 million wireless broadband municipal network that uses WiMax. WiMax facts
WiMax is shorthand for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, the popular name for 802.16 wireless standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). To understand what is involved with a WiMax system, think of a Wi-Fi hot spot at a local coffee shop or library — and then boost that system’s range by several hundred times.
“It’s a middle ground between cellular technology and Wi-Fi,” said Jeffrey Andrews, an assistant engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin and associate director of the university’s Wireless Networking and Communications Group.
WiMax can handle data more efficiently than cellular systems, allowing for greater throughput. Its range dwarfs that of Wi-Fi, a technology that was designed for indoor use. Wi-Fi nodes provide coverage of only a few hundred feet. WiMax, assuming ideal conditions, can reach as far as 30 miles.
“Your average town with six or seven [WiMax] access points could have full-blown coverage,” said Derek Kerton, a consultant in the wireless communications sector.
In theory, WiMax’s standards-based approach can easily support voice and data. WiMax-certified products are expected to hit the market later this year or in early 2008. Until then, early adopters are using uncertified or pre-WiMax technology.
Champions of WiMax say standardization will promote economies of scale that will reduce the price of WiMax-certified devices, which work in licensed and unlicensed spectrums.
“WiMax is disruptive technology. I think it will change the landscape,” said Mike Bourre, vice president of sales and marketing at Radio IP Software. “You get more for your buck.”
By next year, some laptop PC models will ship with embedded Intel chips that make them WiMax-compatible. Wireless smart phones will be available that can switch users from cellular to WiMax to provide the cheapest rate and the most efficient means of transmitting data. Sprint Nextel is investing heavily in the development of a nationwide WiMax network.
“The secret ingredient is understanding how to maximize different options,” said Daniel Burrus, a technology strategist and author of “Technotrends.” “It’s really all about integrating different means of communication and standards to give maximum and most efficient advantage to the end user.”
WiMax comes in two basic flavors: fixed and mobile.
Fixed WiMax, known as 802.16d and ratified in 2004, is the more proven, less-flashy version. It can cover ranges of as far as 30 miles using a directional antenna. The technology can be deployed quickly and at relatively low cost, making it an affordable, though less robust, alternative to fiber.
“WiMax is like 23 cents on the dollar of what it costs to run fiber,” said Leonard Scott, business unit manager for Corpus Christi, Texas, which uses a pre-WiMax, point-to-point solution to bring broadband to areas not served by the city’s fiber-optic backbone. From there, a point-to-multipoint configuration delivers broadband via Wi-Fi gateway devices. In addition to backhaul for Wi-Fi, WiMax also allows the city to conduct video surveillance of crime hot spots and control sewer and water pumping stations.
The affordability and ease of deployment make WiMax an ideal redundant broadband system, Scott said.
“A good portion of our fiber is aerial,” he said. “In a hurricane, it blows down. It can take months to get fiber back up. WiMax can go back up in days.”
The benefits of fixed WiMax aside, most of the buzz about WiMax technology concerns the 802.16e standard for mobile device connectivity. It has the potential to deliver wireless broadband to roving users at the speeds needed to accommodate data-rich applications, that until now, couldn’t be delivered wirelessly.
“Data can be pushed to you in real time,” Kerton said of mobile WiMax. “You’ll have [remote] access to government databases. A bomb squad can transmit pictures. Police can use handheld devices to get mug shots. In case of an Amber Alert, police could get pictures of the vehicle and child.”
“Having a mobile connection to data is a great efficiency boost, surveillance boost and safety boost,” Kerton said. “It keeps police on the beat longer, and it reduces costs in meter reading.”
He envisions state agencies and local governments operating private WiMax networks alone and with industry partners.
“Private networks have security and efficiency benefits,” Kerton said. “You own it and operate it. Internal data never leaves the network.”
Commercial networks, whether WiMax or cellular, can become overwhelmed during heavy use, often the times when government employees need them most. During the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., this spring, people trying to make calls on their cell phones couldn’t get through.
“If police had depended on the cell carrier, they would not have been able to communicate,” Bourre said. Governments should consider the availability and reliability of the network, he said.
Similarly, WiMax’s promise of interoperability should be attractive to governmental emergency employees who depend on reliable communications, industry experts say.
“It is very important that interoperability is available,” said Prem Jadhwani, senior product manager at GTSI’s enterprise solutions group. “You don’t want to silo first responders.”
Mobile WiMax is similar to cellular insofar as base stations are omnidirectional and the data session is seamlessly handed off from one base station to the next as the user moves. The primary difference between the latest version of cellular, so-called 3G services, and mobile WiMax is that the latter is a newer standard, more efficient and has much higher data rates, said Jim Parker, senior manager of wireless systems at Samsung, which is focusing on deployment of 802.16e technology in the United States and abroad.
“WiMax is an order of magnitude faster,” Parker said. “With the additional throughput, you can support richer multimedia applications.”
Fixed WiMax can provide an excellent emergency backhaul solution, Parker said, while mobile WiMax offers a compelling alternative to wide-area services provided by 3G technology. WiMax’s kryptonite
Whether WiMax becomes a preferred solution for government users could depend on a few factors, such as access to licensed radio spectrum and competition from the cellular industry, which is pursuing technology upgrades to bolster transmission speeds and offset WiMax’s advantages.
“Cellular is evolving and looking a lot more like WiMax,” Andrews said.
As for the spectrum-licensing issue, fixed WiMax transmits data using a concentrated signal that can safely operate in shared space. Mobile WiMax signals, however, are more susceptible to interference, an issue that makes operation in unlicensed spectrum dicey.
The University of Texas, for example, deployed a campus Wi-Fi network several years ago during the summer. Wi-Fi operates exclusively in the unlicensed spectrum.
The system worked well until students returned to campuswide for the fall semester and set up their own Wi-Fi networks, which interfered with the university’s system. Administrators ordered students to cease using their personal Wi-Fi transmitters, but the Federal Communications Commission intervened and forbade the institution from unlawfully trying to limit use of an unlicensed spectrum that is available to everyone.
Licensed spectrum, however, is expensive and difficult to acquire. Large telecommunications companies have already obtained much of it. It is unclear whether FCC will provide spectrum for governments to set up WiMax networks or if companies owning licenses will lease them to government — or if such scenarios would be cost-effective. A number of options exist, including the potential to use the 700 MHz band, which will become available when TV broadcasters switch to digital broadcasting in 2009.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol is looking at the possibility of using the 700 MHz band WiMax coverage statewide, Bourre said. FCC must decide.
Then there is the question of just how mobile WiMax will be in real-world deployments. “It’s unclear how much mobility WiMax would support,” Andrews said. “The modes adopted [for the mobile WiMax standard] give up quite a bit in terms of data rate.”
People talk about high data rates as if the sky’s the limit, Andrews said, but they are quoting the best-case scenario numbers.
Given the various unknowns, Kerton advises more patience.
“Any government planning on deploying mobile WiMax is taking a large amount of risk and accepting performance promises on faith, as opposed to empirical proof,” he said. “Within one or two years, we will have real proof and much less risk in deployment. …The prudent approach is to wait.”
“Eventually it will arrive,” he said. “The question is when? Will it be 2008 or 2010?”
Vishal Sharma, principal consultant at Metanoia, agreed. “If you want mobility, WiMax is not there,” Sharma said. “Viability of the mobile standard has lots of issues. It’s one and a half to two years away from perfection.”
Not everyone is as circumspect.
“The old rule of technology was ‘If it isn’t broke, why fix it?’ The new rule is ‘If it works, it’s obsolete,’ ” Burrus said. “Waiting has a price. Waiting is never a good answer.”
Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.