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How does WiMAX compare to other wireless broadband services?

Learn about WiMAX and similar WAN technologies, such as 3g, in an expert response from Lisa Phifer.

We're starting a mobile wireless project, should we be considering WiMAX? How does it compare to other wireless broadband services?
WiMAX refers to wireless metropolitan area network (WMAN) technology, based on the IEEE 802.16 standard. WiMAX provides non-line-of-sight (NLoS) connectivity between a subscriber station and base station over distances of up to ten kilometers. Products that have passed current WiMAX Forum certification tests deliver up to 40 Mbps per channel.

WiMAX was originally designed to support fixed wireless broadband applications. Specifically, fixed WiMAX has long been used as a wireless alternative to wired "last mile" broadband technologies like DSL, cable, and fiber. Today, mobile WiMAX (based on IEEE 802.16e) is emerging to provide wireless access to portable/mobile devices like handset's and laptop's WiMAX adapters.

In the US, commercial WiMAX services are currently being rolled out by Clearwire and Sprint Nextel. Sprint's 4G WiMAX network, called XOHM, is scheduled to become commercially available this fall in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington DC. A list of WiMAX deployments around the world can be found in this LightReading article.

Mobile WiMAX is being positioned as a next-generation replacement for today's 3G wireless WAN services like EV-DO and HSDPA. It can be used for many of the same nomadic wireless applications (e.g., on-the-go Internet access by travelers) and could be used to add Internet connectivity to portable/mobile devices like GPS receivers, automotive entertainment systems, and personal media players.

In theory, mobile WiMAX could provide much higher bandwidth than 3G over similar coverage areas. In practice, it will be quite a while before WiMAX coverage is competitive with today's 3G service areas. Meanwhile, other multi-megabit 4G mobile broadband technologies like LTE will be deployed to compete with Mobile WiMAX. A concise comparison of these two 4G contenders can be found in this Comsys PDF on WiMAX and 3GPP-LTE.

If you're looking to enable workforce mobility this year, you should be starting with a commercially-available 3G mobile broadband service (relying on 2.5G services for fallback in weak/absent 3G coverage areas). However, do keep your eye on WiMAX and LTE service offerings so that you can plan to upgrade when the time (and coverage) are right for your workforce.

This was last published in August 2008

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