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Wireless Goes Faster, Farther

If WiMax technology lives up to the hype, faster data speeds over much greater distances than offered by Wi-Fi hot-spots will be the norm
While faster data speeds attract much of the attention, it's the greater range of WiMax that changes the game. Much like cellular service, WiMax signals are designed to blanket neighborhoods or entire cities. An idea of what that means can be seen in the citywide deployments of Wi-Fi systems now taking place in some locations.

In October, Rio Rancho, N.M., deployed a Wi-Fi system to cover 103 square miles using equipment from Proxim Corp. and services from Azulstar Networks. The system uses several hundred transmitters located throughout the city. "It's a Wi-Fi system that is going to grow as the city continues to have more communities developed," says Peggy McCarthy, assistant to the city administrator.

Rio Rancho deployed the network for several reasons, she says. The city hopes the network will bring in business, give frustrated residents alternatives to service provided by phone and cable TV companies, and provide service to those living in rural areas where cable and DSL aren't available. "We have one neighborhood that's remote enough that it doesn't even get cable or natural gas, but it's going to get broadband wireless," McCarthy says. And an all-digital film studio has unveiled plans to build a facility in the city and transmit video signals to Hollywood without compression.

The network provides fixed and mobile high-speed Internet access as well as more advanced services such as point-to-point VPN connections, voice over IP, wireless video surveillance, and high-speed access for cars traveling at speeds of up to 55 mph and for boats up to 15 miles offshore. Azulstar offers connections of 4 Mbps, CEO Tyler van Houwelingen says.

The system is designed so the transition to WiMax will be easy. "We're creating a footprint for very widespread adoption of WiMax," McCarthy says.

The Rio Rancho deployment shows the potential of high-speed wireless. But in most cases, cities aren't likely to deploy the technology. While WiMax can effectively serve a population such as Rio Rancho's, it's a "far cry from plunking down a bunch of WiMax equipment in the middle of New York City and trying to compete with Time Warner Cable and Verizon for existing broadband subscribers," says Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research. WiMax might make more sense for connecting Wi-Fi hot-spots and cellular data networks, he says.

WiMax was originally viewed as an alternative to telephone and cable services, and it was expected that long-distance carriers like AT&T and MCI would use the technology to bypass the local service provider networks and connect directly to customers. But now that both of those companies--the nation's two largest long-distance companies--are being acquired by local phone companies, it isn't clear whether they'll have the same enthusiasm for WiMax as they once did.

In addition, WiMax will have to compete with proprietary wireless systems and faster data services that are being introduced by cellular companies.


WiMax opens the door to innovation, Shakouri says.

WiMax opens the door to innovation, Shakouri says.
Still, Mohammad Shakouri, a VP at the WiMax Forum and an executive with wireless equipment maker Alvarion Ltd., says WiMax technology will be incorporated in notebook computers and PDAs, and services will be available by 2006.

"Our vision is to move away from the idea of providing 'pipes' to the home or business and to focus on providing information to the end user, whether that person is at home, at work, or on the go," Shakouri says. "If we can develop a wide area infrastructure to meet those needs, then it will open the door for more innovative uses in our everyday lives."

Many large telephone and cable companies are actively testing WiMax--but none has made a commitment to actually deploy it, Forrester's Golvin says.

Local phone company BellSouth sees WiMax as a promising technology that "enables us to fill in the gaps in our DSL coverage to extend broadband services to rural areas and in the future introduce new and unique wireless services to complement our wireline services," says Mel Levine, director of product development at BellSouth's science and technology division.

But BellSouth is testing a proprietary wireless system that offers speeds of 1.5 Mbps and has a 3- to 5-mile range, and it has no plans to deploy WiMax until it has proven to be more than just hype, Levine says.

That's the challenge for WiMax. Tech vendors have hyped the technology so much that a backlash has developed--and all of this has taken place before anyone has deployed or used the technology. But if WiMax does live up to the hype, it has the potential to dramatically change the way people and businesses communicate.

Photo By Francesco Bittichesu/Photonica

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