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How will WiMax benefit those looking to avoid commercial access fees?

How is WiMax going to help poor end users who are paying $100 - 200 per month for wireless phone, fixed phone, Internet access, local calls, and long distance calls? Specifically, how is WiMax going to assist with home and community networks where end users are looking to regain some control over communications and avoid unaffordable commercial access fees?
One reason that Wi-Fi has been so successful in the residential and small business market is that it uses unlicensed spectrum. Anyone can install their own Wi-Fi network, and use any radio channel in the ISM (2.4 GHz) or UNII (5 GHz) band. In contrast, cellular networks operate in licensed spectrum. Carriers purchase exclusive rights to use specific radio frequencies in a given geographic area. They recoup those licensing fees (and make profits) by offering commercial services, where subscribers must pay to send cellular data or make phone calls. Those using unlicensed spectrum must depend on voluntary cooperation with neighbors to deal with interference, so guaranteeing service levels can be tough.

WiMax will operate in both licensed and unlicensed bands. Commercial operators will offer metro-wireless services, using licensed spectrum. For example, see Speakeasy's planned WiMax deployment in Seattle. Others -- including community networks -- will be able to use WiMax over unlicensed spectrum. Initially, WiMax (802.16-2004) will be used primarily for "backhaul" links. For example, Wi-Fi may be used to cover a small area, and WiMax may be used to interconnect the Wi-Fi APs, bringing traffic to/from a wired network connection (e.g., T1). Eventually, a mobile extension to WiMax (802.16e) may appear on user devices as well.

Even community networks may charge access fees to cover the cost of building and maintaining network infrastructure. For example, Wireless Philadelphia is a not-for-profit organization that plans to charge "dial up rates" for those who can afford it, while offering limited free access to those who cannot. WiMax and metro-mesh networks in general are expected to play an important role in community networks. And, as you point out, unlicensed spectrum can play a big role in keeping community network costs down.

This was last published in June 2005

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