The complete guide to WiMAX

10th Jan 2009 | 12:29

The complete guide to WiMAX

How WiMAX technology works and the kit you need to use it

The world at your fingertips.

That's the promise of WiMAX, a city-wide wireless technology that promises to make the internet available across wide swathes of a city or rural area.

Companies such as Sprint and Motorola in the US have been promising WiMAX for some time, and over the past few years it became a great wireless idea instead of a great wireless reality.

However, WiMAX is now ready to finally become a viable technology for laptop users. Here's what you need to know about WiMAX, including when it will be more viable and how it will work with your laptop.

What is it?

WiMAX is a broad term that means 'wide wireless access' across an entire city. It stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, although that's not too helpful.

There are two major versions of WiMAX: a fixed wireless system where a wireless signal is sent to a fixed modem, usually one that is installed at a company, as a way to provide high-speed internet access. The second version is mobile WiMAX, which connects to an adapter on your laptop and is lagging a little behind in terms of availability.

It's important to note that WiMAX was not originally intended to be a consumer technology, and started out as a technology that would work alongside Wi-Fi. Think of it as the power plant in your city – it's one way for a city to provide ubiquitous internet services for its citizens, but your laptop would still use Wi-Fi – a technology built into 98 per cent of laptops these days – for the so-called 'last mile' connection.

Service providers call this 'backhaul', in the sense that WiMAX provides the power required for thousands or even millions of people to access the internet without slowdowns and frustrations.

As more and more users connect, WiMAX provides a fat pipe that can handle the traffic in the same way that a powerful T1 or T3 line can handle a lot of traffic over a wired connection at a large company. Some companies in New York, for example, have been connected to private WiMAX networks for some time because it's a cheap way to provide a robust connection for many employees without installing expensive new wiring.

WiMAX has also become a popular technology in other countries, such as Pakistan, where laying fibre-optic cabling is much more difficult and expensive. This more commercial and industrial approach to WiMAX is not that interesting to laptop users – it's all behind the scenes, and there is no direct mobile connection. This version of WiMAX is called 'point-to-point' and it's been around for a few years.

Rolling out the technology

However, companies such as Sprint, Clearwire, Samsung, Motorola, Dell and Intel have a dramatically different vision of how WiMAX will work, one that is more consumer-focused, and this is the vision that is most interesting for mobile users.

In September 2008, Sprint introduced the first consumer implementation of WiMAX, which they call XOHM. The network, which is now running live in Baltimore, Maryland, is the first of its kind with a planned rollout to Chicago and Washington DC and other major cities over the next year or two.

It runs at speeds around 2–4Mbps – with an upload speed that's about half that fast – and stretches around Baltimore for about ten kilometres. Sprint calls it 'the hotspot that goes with you' and that's an accurate description because it runs at about the same speed as a Wi-Fi hotspot connection.

In reality, XOHM is a data-only cellular network that won't likely work with standard mobile phones anytime soon. It may eventually work with smartphones for data service, and Nokia is already planning devices that will support XOHM.

Costs run about the same as a home broadband connection, usually around US$30–$40 per month, depending on the length of the plan (you can also connect to XOHM by the day). Interestingly, this Sprint version of WiMAX is not really intended as a broadband replacement, because it is not fast enough for video or music streaming.

This is a departure from the original concept of WiMAX, which was supposed to run at about 10Mbps. Instead, it's intended as a way to connect from anywhere at anytime. In Baltimore, for example, you can connect on a bus or train, from your own home, at work or from a city park.

As the technology was originally intended as 'backhaul' support for other networks, one of the major perks of WiMAX, , is that it runs at a very low latency. Latency is the bane of every multiplayer gamer's existence – packets sent across the network on a Wi-Fi hotspot, for example, use a high latency as packets are sent in a more choppy, staccato fashion.

In your home, latency can occur on even a high-speed broadband connection when a lot of mobile users connect. In gaming, you can see latency in living colour as the characters on the screen move slowly and the screen freezes for a second during a heated death-match.

WiMAX addresses this problem by sending 'prioritised' packets – like a mailman who knows the best route to deliver your mail. Over XOHM, the connection just 'feels' faster because the packets arrive in a more timely fashion.

Uses for WiMAX

So how might you use WiMAX? As a more widespread version of Wi-Fi, it will allow you to connect from many gadgets – your laptop, desktop, smartphone – from anywhere. That means, you could use WiMAX from the office, then on the bus home and finally when you get home (rumours abound that WiMAX is ultra-sensitive to metal, which means it might not work very well in the car).

This persistent connection is a major advantage to mobile workers who want to keep working on a project that requires an internet connection, or who are using an internet tool such as Salesforce.com and need to maintain a constant, consistent connection. XOHM is the first truly widespread connection for city-wide deployment, offsetting the trend in recent years (in cities such as Philadelphia in the US) where mass wireless deployments have all but stalled out.

Even while the XOHM rollout from Sprint proves that WiMAX can work for the masses, it is still a hotspot replacement technology, running at only 2–4Mbps. However, if Sprint decides to expand and work with more partners and expand the network, it could achieve much faster data speeds as high as 70Mbps, depending on how many towers are installed around a city.

In the UK, where WiMAX has not been widely implemented as a consumer or commercial technology, this could be a major benefit. The US is a proving ground for WiMAX, but an implementation in the UK could run at the faster speeds initially if the providers install more towers to carry the signal.

'WiMAX promises to deliver the "wireless broadband pipe" that enables rich-media, bandwidth-intensive applications, including voice, data and video for fixed, portable and mobile users,' says Tom Gruba, a senior director at Motorola.

'It can interoperate with a vast ecosystem of WiMAX networks, applications, devices and consumer electronics to deliver pervasive coverage and a true "personal broadband" experience. It can also give service providers the opportunity to extend coverage and capabilities with a high-performing, standards-based wireless broadband access portfolio to meet the needs of residential, enterprise and government.'

WiMAX Products

For laptop users, 2009 could become the 'year of WiMAX' if the first initial implementations of the technology are successful.

Sprint plans to blanket the US in an XOHM service eventually, which would theoretically spell the end of Wi-Fi for use as a hotspot technology – even while it continues to persist as a home-networking standard for high-definition (HD) movies, data, and network backups.

'In the next few months, laptop users should expect integrated hardware that provides ubiquitous broadband internet access from anywhere as soon as they boot up without the need for dongles, external boxes or wires,' says Richard Kelland, an EION Wireless spokesperson.

'WiMAX provides different levels of service to different types of customers. Residential users could receive a service that compares in throughput to a cable internet service, while businesses can opt for higher bandwidth T1-like services that can support VoIP and video-conferencing.'

Below are some products to keep an eye on as the WiMAX consumer field starts to grow. Note that these products will not work with WiMAX unless there is a signal present. So for now they only work in Baltimore and nowhere else in the world.

Looking forward

WiMAX is still a burgeoning technology, even after these past few years. It's also now a technology to keep an eye on – it could become a replacement for Wi-Fi and mobile broadband, especially since it doesn't make sense for companies such as AT&T and Sprint to keep offering WWAN access if they can use WiMAX as their primary offering.

WiMAX is also highly scalable – which means a company such as Sprint can add more towers to increase throughput up to 70Mbps. That makes it much more flexible than Wi-Fi, but possibly harder to deploy.

For mobile users, WiMAX presents a future technology that could change how we all connect to the internet.

WiMAX Warnings

Even with all the progress that WiMAX has made in the last part of 2008 alone, it should be noted that the idea of WiMAX has been germinating for some time and has been historically slow in taking root as a technology of choice. Intel is, by far, one of the biggest backers and yet many of its own chipsets and motherboards do not support WiMAX.

There's a chicken-and-egg problem with WiMAX: for mobile users to really adopt the technology, the signal has to be ubiquitous and fast; yet for the providers to install towers to provide the signal, they want to make sure there are enough users to support the investment.

Wi-Fi is a dominant technology – in just one area of central London, you can likely find ten or more Wi-Fi hotspots that are available for mobile users. And every laptop made today comes with Wi-Fi built in. Even companies who are involved in both Wi-Fi and WiMAX and stand to gain from widespread adoption of both technologies are undecided about whether WiMAX will be a major hit for the average laptop user who just needs a solid internet feed, or whether it could be a passing fad that fails to find an audience.

'I don't see mobile WiMAX taking over as the access technology of choice anytime soon,' says Robb Henshaw, a spokesperson for Proxim Wireless, a company that makes products on the back-end for both Wi-Fi and WiMAX access.

'There are already 500 million plus mobile devices – such as laptops and PDAs – with Wi-Fi built in, but very few WiMAX-enabled devices. And beyond the availability of devices, the overall user expectation is likely not going to be met with mobile WiMAX. A mobile broadband network must support burst traffic speeds from 4–10Mbps per user to provide the same voice/data experience they are used to on wired networks. In order to attain that level of per-user bandwidth, you need a system that can support anything from 100–400Mbps, which is considerably more than the 20Mbps that mobile WiMAX can achieve. But with 802.11n capable of providing up to 200Mbps throughput, we feel that using 802.11n for access and WiMAX for backhaul will be a popular choice for delivering 4G connectivity.'

Still, WiMAX could become a de facto standard for wireless access form a notebook, and if that's true, it could kill two birds with one stone and make both WiFi and mobile broadband WWAN connections less compelling.

Five cool pieces of WiMAX kit

Motorola USBW 100
(Price tbc)
www.motorola.co.uk
Motorola's first WiMAX product for laptop users is a USB adapter that looks like a WWAN adapter that connects to a mobile broadband signal. The chip inside is decidedly different: there are actually three versions of the adapter: one for 2.3GHz networks, one for 2.5GHz and one for 3.5GHz. This flexibility of networks can be confusing, so if WiMAX becomes a viable option for you, make sure you check with the provider about which card is fully supported. The USBw 100 is a plug-and-play device, in the sense you can use it on your laptop after installing the drivers.

Lenovo 301
(Price tbc)
www.lenovo.co.uk
Announced in September, this is the successor to the X300. This light-as-a-feather thin laptop was the main competition for the MacBook Air in 2008, but has since become a popular business machine and one that comes with all the latest connection options, including 802.11n Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, and – in a version that will likely debut in mid-2009, built-in WiMAX (according to press releases for the X301). The advantage is that you won't need a USB dongle or ExpressCard adapter and can switch effortlessly between Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, and WIMAX, just by selecting an option on screen.

Zyxel XOHM Modem MAX-206M2
£35
www.zyxel.com
This non-mobile modem is designed for the home user where you can connect it directly to a desktop computer or to a router (in the same way you connect your router to a DSL modem today). For mobile users, it's an attractive option because you can connect to the internet in your home from a router and get mobile. Then when you leave home, if you have a USB modem or a laptop such as the Lenovo X301, you can keep using the internet.

XOHM ExpressCard
£35
www.xohm.com
This Sprint ExpressCard works with the XOHM network and is the primary device that WiMAX users will want to access a high-speed WiMAX connection. Like a mobile broadband adapter such as the Sprint Sierra Wireless EX720 card, the XOHM ExpressCard works with newer laptops using the smaller ExpressCard port. There's also a USB version of this adapter. The antenna on this card folds up for the best signal access.

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet WiMAX Edition
(Approx £440)
www.nokia.co.uk
Nokia plans to introduce a WiMAX-capable version of its N810 Internet Tablet, a device that is designed for surfing the internet, music streaming and video watching, but which is not actually a smartphone. Details are scarce at the moment, but the N810 is similar to the original N800 tablet, so it will have a pen-based interface for entering text and allow you to install third-party Symbian OS applications for gaming and productivity. This has been discontinued, but they are still available for sale.

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First published in What Laptop, Issue 119

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