The Orientation: WiMAX


Welcome to the first installment of CrunchGear’s The Orientation. This is a new weekly column where we take some of the gadgets, technologies, and concepts of the tech world and make it easily digestible to those who might find some of it to be over their heads.

Most of us surf the Web over Wi-Fi on a DSL network or cable modem, and if you’re really unlucky then you’re still on a dial-up network, but I highly doubt you read CG if you’re in the latter group. Your 9-5 probably has a T1 or T3 connection. I’m usually always in an area where I can pick up a signal on my laptop or BlackBerry. But what if I’m not? What if you want to watch YouTube on your iFones? If you’re in a rural area and don’t have access to broadband then I feel very sorry for you. You have the right to rot your brain by surfing the Interwebs for hours on end only to find porn and LOL cats. This is where WiMAX comes in, and while it’s been in the works for a number of years, it’s been available in Korea since 2006. We’re getting very close to its launch in the US next spring via Sprint, and some operators are already offering WiMAX service, such as Clearwire. In a nutshell, it’s point to multipoint broadband wireless transmission. But what the heck does that mean and how does it work? Well, here’s your orientation so you’re prepared for all its glory, so sit back and relax.

Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access aka WiMAX is a telecommunications technology that facilitates the delivery of wireless broadband across extended distances and telecom business folk are looking at it for a last mile solution, which I’ll touch on later. The Koreans have a similar service called WiBro, which stands for wireless broadband (and is much easier to remember than what WiMAX stands for), but it’s not as fast, topping out at 50 Mbps, whereas WiMAX will do up to 70 Mbps. The WiMAX Forum came up with the name and it is comprised of 522 operators, component and equipment companies that certify and promote the compatibility and interoperability of the IEEE 802.16 standard, otherwise known as HiperMAN or WirelessMAN. I’m not trying to confuse you, but I want keep you in the loop in case someone mentions it and you have no idea what they’re talking about.

There are two components to the WiMAX system: tower and receiver. A WiMAX tower, which has a wired connection, is a lot like a cell tower, but a single tower can provide coverage up to 3,000 square miles. Of course, said wired WiMAX tower can link up to another tower via a line-of-sight microwave link thus providing service in areas where operators once could not. The receiver is not a lot different than the Wi-Fi card in your laptop or handheld device.

There are two variants of WiMAX: fixed and mobile. Fixed WiMAX is based on the 802.16-2004 standard and is appealing to operators because it’s cheaper and the already mentioned the benefits above. The reason it’s cheap is because operators don’t have to worry about the last mile, which is the network of wires or cables that brings us the Internets from the network to your home or office, and is the most expensive component for operators. This cost benefit should trickle down to us, which would make our bill much cheaper than what it is now. Fixed WiMAX is more reliable and provides for the transmission of higher frequencies and more data.

Mobile WiMAX is based on the 802.16-2005 standard and basically just adds onto 802.16-2004 by adding support for mobile devices. It’s essentially what Wi-Fi is today, but with greater coverage and data transfer rates, but is limited to a range of two to six miles. That’s it? Heh.

All of this will trickle down to our handsets eventually and thusly eliminate Wi-Fi altogether. Wi-Fi usually transmits up to 54 Mbps, but WiMAX jumps to 70 Mbps. We’ll be able to make phone calls wherever we please and not have to worry about whether or not we’re near a cell tower. We can download music, video or any other content to our handset in the blink of an eye. While in Korea I witnessed a demo of WiBro and I was blown away. A laptop with a WiBro card was blazing through Google Earth seamlessly with no interruptions. Two mobile phones were tested side-by-side for video playback with one having a 3G connection and the other on WiBro. Picture quality on the mobile running on WiBro was smooth, sharp and never had to buffer. I also witnessed demos of IPTVs and a few other things. But those running anywhere from 30 to 50 Mbps. Can you imagine what WiMAX is going to be like? We’ll see what happens when Sprint rolls out Xohm in the spring, which we first told you about a couple months ago.