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The WiMAX Future

People who have been following the telecommunications industry have been seeing it as life or death battle to provide the triple play and other services to American consumers among three titans: phone companies, cable companies and electric utilities. And it is. But meanwhile, there is a development taking place out in left field that may make part of the struggle obsolete in the long run. The development is WiMAX.

The three industries –phone, cable and electricity — feel that they have a chance to beat the others because each one of them owns a pipe into the American consumer’s homes: phone wire, TV cables, and electric service wires. But what if you did not need a wire at all? What if you could provide phone, broadband and TV into every American home without any wires? That is the threat of WiMAX. It could replace the services over wires that have cost phone and cable companies hundreds of billions of dollars to install.

WiMAX is a wireless digital communications system, also known as IEEE 802.16e. WiMAX is supposed to provide broadband wireless access for about 10 miles for fixed stations, and 3 miles for mobile stations. Compare this with WiFi which works only up to 100 – 300 feet. While DSL and cable providers are already offering up to 8 mbps of broadband, WiMAX may actually deliver 14 mbps.

The WiMAX forum ( has made exciting claims about distance and speed, which have yet to be realized in commercial operations. In October 2006, Nortel ( demonstrated IPTV over WiMAX. In Nortel’s demonstration, an IP television service over a live high-speed WiMAX connection was used to view and download broadcast TV (via four mbps) with an integrated electronic program guide. While this was happening, users were also able to use WiMAX to access the Internet, and to make VoIP calls using an IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS).

WiMAX is short for the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access known as IEEE 802.16. WiMAX has several advantages over WiFi. Besides reaching several miles instead of a hundred feet, WiMAX is designed to be more reliable than WiFi. In WiFi, the system uses contention access — all subscriber stations that want to pass data through an access point have to compete for the access point’s attention on a random basis. This can cause distant nodes to be repeatedly interrupted by closer nodes. Result: the further away you are, the less reliable your service. This problem makes services such as VoIP or IPTV difficult to work properly with WiFi because they depend on a constant and relatively stable access system.

WiMAX operates by giving time slot access to each user. With WiMAX, the subscriber station only has to compete once for initial entry into the network. After that it is allocated a time slot by the base station. Because of this feature WiMAX is much more stable.

WiMAX operates at higher speeds, over greater distances and for a greater number of users than WiFi, but you can’t get all at the same time. There is an inverse relationship among frequency, range, power, distance to base station, number of concurrent users and throughput. If you optimize around one factor, such as number of users, the others such as distance and speed may suffer. One advantage, however, is that WiMAX will probably reduce or eliminate the suburban and rural blackout areas that currently don’t have broadband Internet access because phone and cable companies haven’t run cables to their areas.

One well located WiMAX tower can cover a large area. The tower can be fed from a high-bandwidth, wired connection. Having wireless connections between towers will permit WiMAX eventually to cover the whole country. WiMAX, however, may not be more efficient than High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HUSPA) which is a method of sending data through the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) used by cell phones.

One important advantage for WiMAX is that it has full mesh networking capability. A base station sending and receiving messages is a called a node. All the wireless phones and PCs on a given system are also nodes. A PC or cell phone may be receiving and transmitting data with a WiMAX base station tower. With full mesh networking, the PC or cell phone can also be exchanging the same data at the same time with all of the other nodes within range. Mesh networks are self-healing. This means that the network can still continue to work even if a node breaks down or a connection goes bad. This self healing function is supposed to make the WiMAX networks quite reliable.

WiMAX provides more mbps and stronger encryption than WiFi. Intel has been a strong prominent champion of WiMAX. Intel has been including WiFi in its chips as a way to boost the sales of laptops. Today Intel is putting WiMAX in its chips. By 2008, almost all laptops for sale will include WiMAX.

To get broadband service today – with VoIP, IPTV and all that goes with it – users must have a wire that enters their homes or offices, installed by a phone company, an electric utility, or a cable TV provider. With WiMAX, an Internet service provider could set up a WiMAX base station 3 miles from your home. The base station could send and receive broadband to your computer at speeds about half of what AT&T is planning to provide through ADSL. The cost for this service could end up being lower, because the WiMAX provider does not have to run cables to its customers.

Sprint Invests in WiMAX

WiMAX operates on licensed spectrums. One of the best spectrums for WiMAX is 2.5 GHz which has been licensed to Sprint Nextel. In 2006, Sprint Nextel announced plans to build a national WiMAX network which they say will cost $3 billion. The network is to be completed by 2010 on the assumption that there will be continuing demand for wireless Internet access and services. Sprint is designing the network to handle heavy data-usage activities like video on cell phones and laptops without interfering with the main use which will be phone calls and PC broadband.

The Sprint WiMAX network partnership includes Intel, Motorola, and Samsung. These three partners will provide more than half of the cost of the Sprint network. Sprint plans to begin launching the nationwide 802.16e network in 2007. They plan to have 100 million Americans covered by the end of 2008.

The 2.5 GHz band has some very important technical advantages for WiMAX. It may penetrate buildings better than the other possible WiMAX bands, although that has not yet been proved in commercial use. With WiMAX having a range of several miles and a possible download bandwidth of 14 mbps, WiFi hotspots may be less important when the Sprint network is up and running than they are today.

Sprint will be the first major U.S. telecom company to install the mobile version of WiMAX. While other wireless carriers such as T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless spent billions in the 2006 Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction. Sprint had previously bought the 2.5 GHz spectrum that it needed.

Sprint’s new WiMAX network is planned to support average download speeds of between 2 mbps and 4 mbps. Because it can transmit over greater distances and in a wider spectrum band, the company expects the cost of the network to be much less than Sprint is now spending to support its cell phone users. The chips which Sprint plans to use in the WiMAX network are one-tenth the cost of chips used to build Sprint’s current 3G network.

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