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How each wireless technology differs: Wi-Fi, WiMax and WLANs

This expert response explains the difference between wireless technologies like Wi-Fi, WiMax and WLANs.

What are the relative merits of WLAN, Wi-Fi and WiMax over each other? And what are the primary differences between Wi-Fi and WLAN?
Wireless networks have become increasingly popular in both residential and business environments today.

Wi-Fi (short for "wireless fidelity") technology has proved successful in providing cheap wireless solutions for Internet access and network connectivity. Created in 1991, Wi-Fi was designed to serve indoor clients within a short proximity of up to 50 or so meters and outdoor clients of up to 100 meters. The speeds offered by Wi-Fi range from 1 Mbps to 200 Mbps with the use of the latest IEEE wireless LAN (WLAN) standard 802.11n.

While Wi-Fi technology is also used to cover larger distances (using high gain antennas), its design is mostly suitable for indoor-outdoor clients, rather than point-to-point links.

Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax ), on the other hand, is a newer breed of wireless technology designed mostly for outdoor point-to-point links, but obviously not restricted only to that as there are already products allowing clients to connect to WiMax access points (APs).

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One of the strong points WiMax has over Wi-Fi is that it doesn't require a line of sight to work. This means you can link up to points even if you've got large obstacles between them, making it a very attractive solution in today's point-to-point links. In addition, WiMax technology is able to push significantly larger amounts of bandwidth over the large distances it covers. Some manufacturers have managed to come out with products that can push over 250 Mbps over links of up to 30-50 miles away (50-80 Kms)!

While the benefits of WiMax over Wi-Fi are obvious, we must understand that they are two different technologies aiming to cover different needs. Wi-Fi is a cheap solution aimed to cover short distances and clients offering speeds of up to 200 Mbps; while WiMax is the next-generation of wireless technologies that's very expensive and aims to cover long distances without necessarily having a line of sight.

This question was also answered by our wireless networking expert, Lisa Phifer. Read her response to this question: Differences between WLANs, Wi-Fi and WiMax.

This was last published in October 2008

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