Cutting the Cord

WiMax could bridge the last mile to deliver wireless broadband access.

WiMax could bridge the last mile to deliver wireless broadband access.

The future usually arrives later and more chaotically than is ideal. Only in retrospect are particular technologies foreordained for success. Meanwhile, competing standards vie to stay relevant tomorrow.

So it is with broadband wireless access, a type of high-speed wireless connection that extends for tens of miles, not yards, and could even compete with local wired infrastructure as a way to connect users to the nationwide telecommunications network.

Most of the buzz today centers on Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, more commonly called WiMax. Telecom nerds call it 802.16, after the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers committee that governs its standards. Experts say that speeds per channel of up to 70 megabits per second will be possible, although Clearwire, a Kirkland, Wash., commercial WiMax provider, currently offers only 1.5 Mbps. WiMax allows administrators to prioritize traffic on the network, an important feature when congestion threatens to shut down everything.

WiMax has big names and big bucks behind it-chip manufacturer Intel Corp. and device maker Motorola Inc., among others. Telecom giant Sprint says it will invest $3 billion in the technology by 2008. Canadian market analysis firm Maravedis Inc. predicts that by the end of 2012, there will be 87 million broadband wireless subscribers, 67 million of whom will use WiMax.

And the federal government might be interested in it, too, beyond just the basic attraction of broadband mobility. Both man-made and natural disasters this millennia have exposed how vulnerable telecom is to disruption, especially when entire buildings depend on just one connection to the outside world. "We've got a lot of single-point entry and exit in our major campuses," says David Cheplick, director of telecommunications operations management for the Veterans Affairs Department.

Some agencies have sought to add secondary access lines from alternate carriers at separate entry points, but agencies have bought only the illusion of communications diversity if those lines connect to the same central office. A February 2006 report from the Washington Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, produced at the behest of the Federal Reserve Board, found that without expensive and periodic manual assessments of circuit pairs, it is impossible to ensure diversity over time. WiMax could prove an easy means to create truly secondary or tertiary connections.

But Cheplick and others say it falls short as a primary connection. "I don't see it right now as being necessarily ready to support the kind of bandwidth requirements we've got," he says. And while there's been plenty of interest in WiMax, a lot of that is due to marketing tactics. "It definitely has an awful lot of hype," says Lillian Goleniewski, author of Telecommunications Essentials (Addison-Wesley, 2006). The standard has undergone significant revisions since it was first released in 2001, though some analysts believe that the two latest versions have stabilized the standard for fixed and mobile access, respectively.

If a mass market does develop, then it will likely start in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China-nations lacking extensive wire line infrastructure, Goleniewski says. That's problematic for the potential U.S. market because the frequencies licensed for WiMax are different from those in other countries. Within the United States, much of the technology's frequency is located around 2.5 gigahertz, in spectrum mainly controlled by Sprint and Clearwire, which is investing $1 billion to develop its WiMax network.

"The interoperability issues are pretty big in terms of vendors who want to be able to sell to a wide international market, but then they have to make multiple pieces of equipment that are each operating in a different band," Goleniewski adds. For example, WiBro, which stands for wireless broadband, is a South Korean standard expected to conform to 802.16e-2005, but "it remains uncertain how the two will eventually interoperate," Goleniewski writes in the second edition of her book. Moreover, there are competing wireless broadband standards with IEEE accreditation. For example, Mobile-FI, formally known as 802.20, which has had backing from San Diego-based Qualcomm, suffered a setback when the IEEE temporarily suspended the committee's work last summer following industry complaints that the process was not transparent.

Other providers of wireless communication such as satellite links say they already have low-cost infrastructure diversity solutions. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they like to point out, emergency crews brought in portable satellite gear to reconnect New Orleans to the world. Satellite communication was a necessity when so much of the terrestrial infrastructure was simply wiped out. Nothing can guarantee diversity like having a router orbiting around the Earth, they add.

The ability to handle heavy use is the Achilles' heel of many a good idea. But if doubts remain about using WiMax at the enterprise level, telecom providers say they're still going forward because their first target market will be individual users.

"Initially, it's going to be driven by consumer customers," says Tony D'Agata, general manager of Sprint's government systems division. Where consumers once expected broadband only on a desktop computer, now they want it everywhere they go on myriad devices. The idea, proponents say, is to use WiMax to blur the edges between wired and wireless environments, but not necessarily replace wires.

NEXT STORY: The Battle for E-Government