WI-FI on Steroids

Will WiMax provide the juice for souped-up connections?

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You’re on a train that’s speeding toward New York City. You’re putting the finishing touches on your big presentation; you just need to access the company intranet to grab that last bit of information. The connection slows to a crawl … then drops. Now imagine being able to access the same intranet without interruption. That’s the promise of WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) for the U.S.

What is WiMAX? Think Wi-Fi on steroids. WiMAX is technology that moves your data and connects you faster and at greater distances than ever before. While Wi-Fi provides access via a local area network (LAN), on a specific network, and within a certain range, WiMAX provides fixed, portable, nomadic, and soon, mobile connectivity over longer ranges (typically many miles, rather than the short range of Wi-Fi). The technology works in much the same way a cellular phone does-service bounces from tower to tower so that the connection never drops. In terms of speed, Kirkland, Washington-based Clearwire advertises WiMAX speeds of up to 4Mbps for downloads, typical of the average WiMAX connection.

According to the WiMAX Forum, WiMAX technology has already been incorporated in notebook computers and PDAs, allowing urban areas and cities to become “metro zones” for portable outdoor broadband wireless access.

Mobile WiMAX technology has also been deployed in Korea for users who want to get online while either moving or outside.

“Because WiMAX can cover a broader area and has much greater throughput, you will get better coverage,” says Chris Silva, an analyst of wireless and mobile operations at Boston-based Forrester Research. “Because the signal reaches a broader area, there can be overlap in towers for greater signal penetration, to be used in-home or in-office, as well as an outdoor solution.”

In the U.S., testing is under way to introduce mobile WiMAX in trial markets by year’s end. Sprint has partnered with Intel, Motorola, and Samsung to deploy a mobile WiMAX network to as many as 100 million users in early 2008.

Because the mobile WiMAX systems have yet to be deployed, pricing was not set at press time. Experts think the service will cost slightly less than unlimited data plans with cellular carriers-roughly $30 a month.

“This is going to bring about a more competitive marketplace for all high-speed data services and mobile data services, so I think people will start getting more for their money,” says Roger Marks, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 802.16 Working Group on Broadband Wireless Access, developers of the WiMAX standard. Marks is also senior vice president of industry relations at NextWave Broadband, another WiMAX provider.

Intel plans to release an integrated WiMAX/Wi-Fi option for its Centrino notebook PCs in 2008 and already sells WiMAX chipsets for fixed and mobile WiMAX modems. Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing at Intel’s WiMAX program says, “We really think this is life-changing technology. The next generation will live in an always-connected world, and WiMAX is the way to deliver that.”