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WASHINGTON - A wireless technology that Sprint Nextel plans to launch within a year makes high-speed and secure Internet access possible from almost anywhere.


Called WiMax, it’s the heart of a huge telecommunications industry effort to supplant Wi-Fi, the service that most users rely on for wireless Internet connections at broadband speeds.


WI-FI VS. WIMAX Wi-Fi uses unlicensed radio frequencies, which lack privacy and can suffer from interference. WiMax uses licensed radio frequencies just as radio stations do. This makes WiMax Internet access stronger and more secure. Wi-Fi has a range of about 75 to 150 feet in a typical home or office. It can provide Internet access in Wi-Fi “hotspots” such as cafes and airports. WiMax has a range of up to 30 miles. Users far beyond Wi-Fi’s reach can surf the Internet. Wi-Fi is designed for Local Area Networks (LAN) where electronic devices share a common wireless link. WiMax is designed for Metropolitan Area Networks, which cover greater areas than LAN. Source: Wi-Fi Alliance and WiMax Forum

If it succeeds, WiMax technology could be as big a change as the mobile phone revolution. An independent technology consulting firm, Boston-based Yankee Group, estimates that 58 million people worldwide will use WiMax by 2012.


Sprint, which invested $5 billion to become the first company to deliver it in the United States, plans to offer WiMax-embedded electronic devices such as laptop computers and digital cameras by 2009 and 2010, said Barry West, the company’s chief technology officer.


Unlike Wi-Fi, which relies on free radio frequencies that suffer from interference, WiMax uses a licensed channel of radio spectrum. It provides clearer, stronger and more secure Internet access. The stronger signal travels farther than Wi-Fi, enabling consumers to get beyond the limits of Wi-Fi “hotspots.”


Instead, they can surf the Web in cars, parks and rural communities unreached by Wi-Fi. Sprint’s system also offers Internet access that’s five times faster than most current devices, according to the company.


The greater speed and stronger signal could enable WiMax-equipped cell phone users at work to operate a washer-dryer or record a TV show at home, said Paul Kirby, a technology writer for TR Daily, a communications industry newsletter.


First responders could convey more real-time information from accidents and crime scenes by transferring photos and data to emergency rooms and command centers wirelessly, Kirby said. WiMax’s faster Internet access also would make long-distance learning more interactive, and its stronger signal would reach more students.


Many potential uses for WiMax, which stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, remain to be discovered, West told a Wireless Communications Association conference last week in Washington. He said it was like the early days of mobile phones when people wondered why they’d need to make calls outdoors.


“In terms of delivering mobility to the masses, this technology can do it,” West said.


Sprint’s WiMax network, called Xohm and pronounced “Zohm” to rhyme with “home,” is now being tested in three U.S. cities: Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The company plans to introduce the nation’s first mobile WiMax device, the Internet tablet Nokia N810, within 60 days, West said. He wouldn’t comment on its price, but the non-WiMax Edition costs about $480, according to Nokia’s Web site.


Competitors such as Clearwire, based in Kirkland, Wash., and Nextnet, based in Palo Alto, Calif., are expected to follow Sprint with their own WiMax-equipped products. Alvarion based in Mountain View, Calif. and DigitalBridge Communications based in Ashburn, Va., are planning to target rural markets.


Sprint’s biggest telecom rivals, AT&T and Verizon, are trailing behind Xohm with an alternative but similar technology. Called Long Term Evolution (LTE), it will not be available until 2010, according to Verizon.


Sprint, based in Overland Park, Kan., held up its planned April launch after experiencing glitches in transmission quality and reliability, plus capacity limits in fiber-optic wiring at base stations. Point-to-point microwave wireless connections are an option, Sprint spokesman John Polivka said.


According to Yankee Group wireless analyst Philip Marshall, Xohm’s got two years to dominate the post-Wi-Fi world. Alternatively, WiMax and LTE standards could merge or share the market.


West referred to WiMax as a “global phenomenon.” Samsung, as Sprint’s partner, helped South Korea launch WiBro, its WiMax program, in 2005. This month, Intel announced that it will invest $500 million in Taiwan’s WiMax technology.


“This isn’t about WiMax. This isn’t about LTE,” West said. “This is about growth in telecom, something that we can look forward to in years to come.”

Tagged as: wi-fi | wimax
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