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What are the differences between Wi-Fi and WiMax?

Wi-Fi is the wireless standard used to build wireless LANs, while carriers primarily used WiMax to build wireless metropolitan area networks before moving to LTE.

The primary differences between Wi-Fi and WiMax can be easily summed up in looking at their uses. Wi-Fi is the wireless standard used to build wireless LANs, while WiMax was primarily used by carriers to build wireless metropolitan area networks before it was largely eclipsed by LTE.

A WLAN is a group of devices wirelessly linked together within a relatively small space, like a corporate campus, single office building or home. A WLAN uses radio frequency technology to take the place of wires to interconnect networked nodes.

What is Wi-Fi?

Originally designed in 1997, Wi-Fi is a wireless network technology based on the IEEE 802.11 group of standards. The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry consortium that promotes interoperability in heterogeneous WLANs, tests Wi-Fi products for each 802.11 standard -- from the first 802.11b specification to the most recent 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6 -- to ensure they correctly support each version's subset of features. Common Wi-Fi capabilities include orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and multiple input, multiple output.

Wi-Fi is most often used to build WLANs. To create a WLAN, enterprises, small businesses and home owners can purchase Wi-Fi-certified access points (APs) and clients -- such as laptops, phones and printers -- that transmit data using specific radio frequencies. Distance limitations dictate that clients must be no more than a few hundred feet -- approximately 230 feet, or 70 meters -- from the closest AP. Wireless teams can cover larger buildings by installing multiple APs connected to each other.

What is WiMax?

Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX>) is a wireless technology that uses spectrum to provide broadband wireless connectivity. When it was developed in the early 2000s, WiMax was originally proposed as a wireless alternative to wired internet access -- DSL or cable at the time -- particularly in rural areas where wired broadband internet access was scarce.

IEEE standardized WiMax as 802.16 and updated the specification through the mid-2000s, adding features like OFDM and quality of service. At the time, WiMax was expected to become the next Wi-Fi, but its adoption was hindered by higher costs, proprietary vendor technology and lack of carrier interest.

WiMax was intended to offer service providers a wireless last-mile option to connect users and was considered a backhaul candidate for 4G wireless. WiMax has largely been eclipsed by LTE from wireless service providers, however.

WiMax is still used for wireless internet access in countries outside the U.S. that are developing their wireless infrastructure. It has also been considered as an alternative technology for IoT. According to the WiMax Forum, the technology can be used by vertical markets including utilities, transportation, aviation, and oil and gas largely because it is flexible enough to be useful for upload-centric industries rather than mobile markets that are primarily download-centric.

WLANs vs. WMANs

Unlike Wi-Fi's use for WLANs, the WiMax 802.16 standard is used in wireless metropolitan area networks (WMANs). WMANs are fixed broadband wireless access links that connect a service provider's subscriber networks to a base station at a wireless carrier's point of presence.

WMAN technologies are optimized for outdoor operation over greater distances, while Wi-Fi's 802.11 protocols were primarily designed for indoor use.

Key differences between Wi-Fi and WiMax

The bottom line is that the differences between Wi-Fi and WiMax make them complementary network architectures supported by standards for use in different environments and for different purposes. Over time, Wi-Fi has become ubiquitous in terms of enterprise wireless use. While WiMax can still be used, LTE has surpassed its use in the U.S. and in many other countries.

This was last published in December 2020

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