Understanding WiMAX

By Troy Dreier

October 16, 2007

If you don't know WiMAX from Wi-Fi, read this primer to get a grip on the basics.

WiMAX could be the the next big thing. If you don't know your WiMAX from your Wi-Fi, read this introduction to get your wireless head on straight.

WiMAX basics

WiMAX is a wireless technology based on a standard called IEEE 802.16, which allows for high-speed wireless access of the Internet on a large scale. Think of your home's Wi-Fi network (which is based on the 802.11 standard), but expanded to include your whole city.

WiMAX is also an open standard, and it's administered and promoted by the WiMAX Forum which formed way back in 2001. WiMAX is a 4G—or fourth generation—wireless communications technology, and promises better upload and download speeds than 3G networks. But, while the two main 3G networks--CDMA and UMTS--are used for mobile phones, WiMAX aims to go way beyond the cell phone market.

Putting WiMAX through its paces

WiMAX is being tested in nearly 300 trials by various companies around the world. In the U.S., it's being advanced by Sprint, which has begun building a nationwide WiMAX network. Its WiMAX implementation is called Xohm, which doesn't have a specific meaning, but which is supposed to sound "Internet-centric and edgy," according to a Sprint representative. It's built using the mobile WiMAX standard IEEE 802.16e-2005.

Sprint's network will run on a (largely unused) spectrum that the company already owns. When the network is in place, Sprint says consumers should be able to get 3-5Mbps when downloading, and 1Mbps when uploading.

A nationwide roll-out can't happen overnight, so Sprint is using Chicago and Washington D.C./Baltimore as test markets; both will have WiMAX in place by the end of 2007 for a soft launch. This will let Sprint optimize the experience and work out the bugs. Sprint will launch more markets in April of 2008, then more throughout the rest of next year. In all, it plans to offer WiMAX coverage in 20 to 30 major metropolitan areas by the end of 2008, serving 100 million people.

While Sprint hasn't announced WiMAX pricing yet (that should come by the end of 2007), the representative we spoke with suggested that variable rate plans might be an option, with customers paying more for a higher level of bandwidth. The company is planning a portal for WiMAX users, which would offer video content from featured partners. Those partners will also get premium treatment, with guaranteed delivery speeds.

More than mobile phones

Sprint is looking way beyond the cell phone and plans to implement WiMAX access in a variety of ways. The first consumer devices will be modems that will let home networks connect to the Internet with WiMAX like they now connect with cable or DSL.

Sprint is also planning laptop connection cards that will let computers connect to WiMAX networks directly. Those options should arrive by mid-2008, with WiMAX-capable phones following at the end of the year.

The company hopes to embed WiMAX chips in a variety of consumer devices, including cameras and video cameras. That would allow users to upload their video to a network immediately after shooting. Cameras with WiMAX should begin hitting the market in 2009, a rep suggested.

Check back for WiMAX updates as Sprint builds up its network and WiMAX devices hit the market.

This story was adapted from, "WiMAX: What it Is, What it Means for Video," which originally ran at Web Video Universe.com.

Troy Dreier is a regular contributor to Web Video Universe, PDA Street, Intranet Journal, and Laptop Magazine. He also writes a weekly consumer technology column, which is published in the Jersey Journal newspaper and distributed by the Newhouse News Service. His first book, CNET Do-It-Yourself Home Video Projects: 24 Cool Things You Didn't Know You Could Do, was published by McGraw-Hill in August.

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