The New Last Mile Broadband: WiMAX

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

April 30, 2004

WiMAX is slated to provide high-speed connectivity over distances that dwarf 802.11's effective range. Of course, it also promises to keep things interesting for network administrators just coming to grips with Wi-Fi.

When you want broadband today chances are you're locked to a landline connection with a T1, DSL or cable modem. WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), an evolving standard for point-to-multipoint wireless networking, may change that for the last mile in the same way that Wi-Fi has changed the last one hundred feet of networking.

Microwave broadband is actually a very old technology. Your author has some not-so-fond memories of setting up T-1 (1.54Mbps) microwave connections in the early 80s. Proprietary point to multipoint microwave networks from companies like Alcatel and Siemens have existed for decades. But the technology has also been extremely proprietary and that has limited its popularity. What WiMAX brings to the plate is that it's attempting to standardize the technology.

Now, WiMAX may change that not only for rural areas, but for anyplace where the cost of laying or upgrading landlines to broadband capacity is prohibitively expensive.

Craig Mathias, an analyst for the FarPoint Group, says that WiMAX is the commercialization of the maturing IEEE 802.16 standard. In short, "WiMAX is the marketing arm of 802.16."

802.16 is, according to its charter, "a standard, which specifies the WirelessMAN Air Interface for wireless metropolitan area networks." The standard, which was published on April 8, 2002 is meant to "address the 'first-mile/last-mile' connection in wireless metropolitan area networks (MAN)."

WiMAX is more than just 802.16 though. According to Dean Chang, Director of Product Management for Aperto Networks and WiMAX board member, "it's both a standardization effort between IP over 802.16 and the ETSI High-Performance Radio Metropolitan Area Network (HiperMAN) broadband wireless MAN (WMAN) standards and an industry group devoted to that goal." Thus, "WiMAX compliant equipment will interoperate with both the European HiperMAN and 802.16."

What's driving WiMAX, according to Edward Rerisi, Director of Research for Allied Business Intelligence is that, "From an operator's standpoint, it gives them a standard that will lower the cost of equipment. Today, this is equipment is very expensive now. A common standard should lead to a more competitive, and cheaper, marketplace." The market will grow enough as a result though that "Equipment vendors will be able to sell more equipment, thus leading to more revenue for them." At the same time, "consumers are very thirsty for broadband."

Mathias sees WiMAX as having two drivers: lower cost for fixed-point to fixed-point wireless and interoperability. "In short, the common benefits of standards." But, he adds, "Fixed microwave has been around for more than 50 years, so one possible scenario is that it's not a price sensitive market at all." Still, he thinks that while "Some will embrace it, some will oppose it, and some will play to see if they get a better Return on Investment (ROI), but the handwriting is on the wall, WiMAX will happen."

Page 2: Nuts and Bolts of WiMAX

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