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10/14/2005
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The Dawn Of WiMax

Vendors push the earliest incarnations of the technology, calling it pre-WiMax. But it could take years for WiMax to realize its potential.

In April 28, a Verizon outage in midtown Manhattan shut down Mimeo .com Inc.'s Internet connection for six hours. CIO Scott Manner was left scrambling to figure out how the digital printing and shipping company's 60 employees could continue to work without their main connection to customers and the outside world.

The experience made Manner begin the search for a backup plan to the two T1 lines that were lost the day of the outage. He remembered an earlier sales pitch about "pre-WiMax" from TowerStream Corp.

Fast forward several months, and Mimeo is supplementing its T1-based Internet connections with a 3-Mbps nearly WiMax service beamed wirelessly from a base station atop the Empire State Building, right through one of Mimeo's Park Avenue office windows. "We need to make sure we have business continuity," Manner says. TowerStream says its New York City service reaches out to northern New Jersey, about 13 miles, and provides speeds of between 1.5 Mbps and 5 Mbps.

After Mimeo.com lost its Internet connection for six hours, CIO Scott Manner decided he needed a backup plan.

After Mimeo.com lost its Internet connection for six hours, CIO Scott Manner decided he needed a backup plan.


Photo by Sacha Lecca
It's not exactly WiMax, but it's a step closer. Vendors have been promising a next-generation wireless service called WiMax that eventually will deliver data speeds of 70 Mbps or more over distances of more than 30 miles, but it could be years before that service emerges. Services such as TowerStream's are the earliest incarnations, offering greater distances, and in some cases faster speeds, than today's commonly used Wi-Fi. That technology is a piggyback Internet connection that relies on hot-spots, while WiMax is a direct, long-distance Internet connection.

As the fledgling technologies that will make up true WiMax start to emerge, they're being used for T1 replacement and backup in metropolitan areas and for Internet connectivity in places were broadband service isn't available.

Yet these "pre-WiMax" technologies also are pre-standard. That should start to change in just a few months. A number of vendors have begun the process for certification testing, and the WiMax Forum, a standards group, is expected to start certifying equipment before year's end. That will get WiMax on the road to standardization, interoperability, greater proliferation of base stations, and healthy competition among vendors. Market intelligence group Visant Strategies sees WiMax commanding half of the expected $3.4 billion wireless broadband market of 2010.

But for now, service is limited and works best within line of sight of a base station. TowerStream and NextWeb Inc. are among the companies offering T1 replacement or supplement in major cities, broadcasting from atop the tallest landmarks.

Global Reach
Meanwhile, vendors such as Clearwire LLC offer competitively priced pre-WiMax service for individuals and busi- nesses in small metropolitan areas, such as Midland, Texas, and Eau Claire, Wis., where there are pockets that wired broadband isn't serving It's the second-biggest market for pre-WiMax and will likely prove to be a sustainable one as WiMax begins to spread through smaller communities across the globe in the future. For example, telecom and networking vendor Alcatel recently signed an agreement for WiMax with the Indian government and envisions 50 million users of it in India within five years.

Some technical challenges remain, and a particularly important one in the United States is lack of spectrum. Providers are forced to choose between the crowded, potentially service-crunching 5.8-GHz public band and the largely unavailable, already licensed 2.3-, 2.5-, and 2.6-GHz bandwidths. This means that as WiMax becomes more prevalent in the next few years, the barriers to entry for carriers could be high.


Mimeo's receiver is in line of sight of the base station at the Empire State Building.

Mimeo's receiver is in line of sight of the base station at the Empire State Building.


Photo by Sacha Lecca
But TowerStream CEO Philip Urso is optimistic that many of the issues will resolve themselves over time. He predicts that the desire to cooperate will prevail among WiMax providers, enabling customers to switch networks based on where they roam. "We're hoping that there will be aggregators in the middle that will allow networks to shake hands with each other," he says. Companies like Boingo Wireless Inc. already do this in the Wi-Fi space, connecting customers to numerous Wi-Fi networks.

The WiMax Forum and some of the biggest proponents of WiMax in the vendor community, including Intel, want to see equipment that's interoperable with Wi-Fi and 3G, or next-generation cellular networks, so WiMax can serve as as a backup or an extension service where those technologies are in use. WiMax is late into the wireless game, so it has to find niches where other technologies are lagging. "It's not going to displace existing mobile infrastructure," Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin says.

But WiMax is coming, and even in its earliest forms it has found a seat at the wireless table.

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