However, Tom Tofigh, senior technical specialist at AT&T Labs and chair of the WiMax Forum, argued that a standards-based technology like WiMax is needed to allow people broadband access whether they're in San Francisco or Hong Kong. Wi-Fi cannot provide such global coverage, he said. Additionally, WiMax offers longer ranges and faster data speeds than Wi-Fi, so it can potentially span across entire cities.
Then there's the quality-of-service issue. According to Tofigh, there are certain types of applications that will work only with WiMax, but cannot be enabled with Wi-Fi today. An example includes digital life-size videoconferencing, which requires good quality and a lot of bandwidth.
There's also the mobility component. Specifications for fixed WiMax (802.16d) have been finalized and a mobile WiMax (802.16e) standard has been approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) earlier this month, with certification testing expected to start in the first quarter of 2006. Mobility is a big step forward because it will enable Internet access in the most unlikely places like on public transportation. Whether people are ready to replace their newspapers and magazines with laptops during the morning commute is another story.
Similar mobility can be achieved with a combination of Wi-Fi and third-generation cellular networks, which Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless already built out. Most cell phones will come standard with Wi-Fi starting next year, according to Melkote. And while WiMax is promising to revamp interactive gaming, voice and video conferencing, streaming media, IM and Web browsing, and media downloads, "Wi-Fi and cellular will be the client technology of choice," said Cyrus Irani, VP of marketing and strategy at Strix Systems.
But all hope is not lost. Some are optimistic that Wi-Fi and WiMax can co-exist. "WiMax can be deployed where there's licensed spectrum and Wi-Fi can be deployed where there's unlicensed spectrum," Irani said. Integration of Wi-Fi and WiMax chips in laptops will enable people to go to any city and get broadband, Tofigh added. That's a great future vision for a world where instead of hot-spots there's ubiquitous wireless coverage. The truth is, however, we probably won't know which technology will rule all for another several years.