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WiMax: The next disruptive technology or the next technology black hole?

WiMax has the potential to enable cheap, copnstant wireless connectivity to employees as far as 31 miles from the office. Sound too good to be true? Find out here.

Robert Messinger

To many, WiMax looks like the next networking nirvana. With limited build-out and minimal disruption to their existing networks, companies can link their workforce up to 31 miles from the office. Employees who live close to work will be as productive at home as they are behind their desks. "Windshield warriors" who travel within a short radius of headquarters will be continuously connected. Collaborative teams at any type of campus environment will always have network access. Combine WiMax with VoIP "one wire to the desktop" technology, and employees will have less expensive access to voice information as well.

Unfortunately, as in many situations, looks can be deceiving. WiMax has the potential to enable the kind of connectivity outlined above. However, the technology is not there yet, and it's not clear that WiMax will be the standard that does get us there.

WiMax has received more hype than even its distant cousin, Wi-Fi, especially considering WiMax hardware isn't even available yet. IT managers considering WiMax as a wireless networking solution should be clear on many facts prior to considering its rollout. And, despite a desire to develop a solution for an enterprise, IT managers should keep a close eye on carrier adoption curves before taking the plunge themselves.

WiMax defined
WiMax, or more formally 802.16, actually covers several different frequencies, unlike Wi-Fi. WiMax's base standard includes the 10 to 66 GHz range. 802.16a adds coverage for the 2 to 11 GHz range. WiMax range and quality of service can vary depending on the number of frequencies supported and the power. WiMax's range is frequently stated at 31 miles, but it is really a function of the number of subscribers. To ensure fast speeds, the practical coverage range is as little as 10 miles.

In addition to range, the other principal attractiveness of WiMax is speed. The 802.16 standard provides users uplink and downlink speeds of up to 75 Mbps on a single channel, compared to the 11 Mbps rate of Wi-Fi. However, as with any theoretical performance rate, users should not expect 75 Mbps per channel because radio frequency licensing results in a narrower channel than the 802.16 standard permits.

WiMax achieves these data transfer rates in the 2 to 11GHz range through Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), a spread-spectrum technology that bundles data and transmits it in parallel at different frequencies.

OFDM also provides NLOS (non-line of sight capabilities), but only up to approximately 5 miles, depending on frequency band, with OFDM operating most effectively at low frequency bands. IT managers should expect line-of-sight performance only at the 30- mile WiMax maximum radius.

An added complication when attempting to understand WiMax is the fact that WiMax is actually two standards -- 802.16REVd most easily understood as "point-to-point" wireless and 802.16e as "point-to-multipoint" or (semi-mobile) wireless.

Given the advanced stage of the wired infrastructure in the U.S., it is highly likely that the 802.16e "semi-mobile" standard will be where most IT managers focus. 802.16REVd may well become an important standard in countries lacking a sophisticated landline infrastructure or in rural areas of the U.S.

WiMax drivers
Several factors are driving the development of WiMax. There is a general frustration with the slow deployment and expensive services of 3G technology, as well as lingering doubts about whether IT managers should entrust critical network communications to a telephony carrier. WiMax and other wireless broadband technologies appear to provide a lower cost, higher performance and more rapid deployment potential solution. It also appears that WiMax Forum standards will facilitate interoperability.

Given the newfound acceptance of VoIP as a commercially viable business technology, many analysts believe it will be easier to migrate voice information into a robust data network than vice versa. VoIP is already proving to offer carrier class voice quality and significant cost savings to enterprises.

WiMax should hit the market in two stages. Starting this year, the major networking equipment manufacturers will begin to offer the products necessary to deploy fixed wireless networks based on 802.16. The next stage, most likely to occur after 2006, will be when WiMax chipsets are built into laptops and PDAs. This will make WiMax a truly disruptive technology.

Benefits to the enterprise
WiMax, in combination with existing fixed wireless solutions (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc.) can bring together multiple enterprise sites within a given area. It has the potential to complement or back up expensive private fiber installations as well as lower carrier circuit charges. As WiMax and Wi-Fi become better integrated into a single access point, IT managers can use WiMax as the backhaul to provide network connectivity in remote buildings. This is especially attractive to enterprises attempting to link locations that have weak existing infrastructures (such as construction sites).

IT managers can bond channels together to provide higher bandwidth than the maximum 75 Mbps. For example, eight channels bonded together have the effective bandwidth of 500 to 600 Mbps.

Competing technologies
IT managers should remember that 802.16 is not the only wireless broadband standard in development and that other organizations in addition to IEEE are creating standards for broadband wireless.

A new IEEE working group is developing another standard, 802.20, focused on "the physical and medium access control layers of an air interface for interoperable mobile broadband wireless access systems that operate in licensed bands below 3.5 GHz." The technical objective of 802.20 includes "optimizing IP-based data transport, target peak data rates per user at over 1 Mbps, and support vehicular mobility up to 250 km/hour."

In addition, ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standard Institute) has introduced project BRAN (Broadband Radio Access Networks), which has been creating two standards that are similar to IEEE 802.16 and 802.16a. Hiperaccess covers frequencies above 11 GHz. Hiperman focuses on frequencies below 11 GHz.

It is, therefore, not a sure bet that either 802.16 standard will be the wireless broadband technology of the future.

Why you should care what carriers do
WiMax has the potential to let carriers offer a wide range of new services for lower cost, improve interoperability and finally solve the "last mile" problem that has plagued operators since the first analog phone networks were established.

Carrier adoption of WiMax is critical for the technology's success; carriers will purchase infinitely more equipment and services from vendors than businesses. If carriers embrace the standard, it is likely that enterprises will follow.

When to make the leap
IT managers should complete several important steps prior to rolling out WiMax or any new potentially disruptive technology (remembering that "disruptive" can be negative as well as positive):

  • Define a clear set of objectives for the organization's wireless strategy, most likely including a combination of lowering infrastructure costs, improving productivity, and increasing connectivity among specific work groups
  • Involve the employees who will use the technology to ensure IT managers have a "real world" sense of what employees need
  • Develop a comprehensive wireless broadband strategy for the company or organization. Determine which type of wireless broadband -- Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, WiMax and potentially others -- works in which situation
  • Determine deployment approaches. Decide if it is better to implement in a few secondary functions first and conduct vigorous testing prior to general rollout or implement enterprise-wide immediately to force employees to learn and use the technology
  • Purchase WiMax solutions from a trusted source. Retain qualified professionals to assist with WiMax implementation to develop the best WiMax strategy, ensure the company purchases the best equipment, provide the best training and maximize the ROI of WiMax technology investment.

When the technology is ready, IT managers should consider WiMax a complement to, not a replacement for, Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi will remain largely a consumer technology, while WiMax will be driven by enterprises and carriers.

As with most technology standards, it is not necessarily the most robust one which wins, but the one backed by the most powerful players. Intel is planning to develop dual Wi-Fi/WiMax chipsets. If two or three of the major carriers adopt the 802.16 standard and Intel rolls out these dual chipsets, it becomes a relatively safe bet that 802.16 will become the next major mobile broadband standard.

There is the potential for any new technology to completely reshape how an enterprise operates and provide significant competitive advantage. Concurrently, any new technology can become a sinkhole requiring massive investment for very little return. It's our opinion that WiMax -- if security, pricing, common standards, reliability and a few other issues are sorted through -- will become a highly successful technology for both vendors selling equipment and services and for companies that implement it as part of a well-considered wireless broadband strategy.

About the author:
Robert Messinger is vice president of sales and marketing for Vector Resources Inc. As leader of the company's sales and marketing efforts, Mr. Messinger's role includes building and maintaining strategic business partnerships and alliances. He also advises several of Vector's principal clients, and often serves as senior project manager where he manages scheduling, deadlines and budgets. Mr. Messinger has more than 15 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. He maintains the management and direction for Vector's ongoing projects, managing technicians, CAD designers and engineering staff. In addition, he manages the direction of the specialized Vector Resources K-12 Educational Market Task Force.

This was last published in June 2004

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