WiMax is finally making wide-area wireless broadband a reality in many US cities - but another technology is fast encroaching. We find out whether WiMax has missed the boat.

WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) broadband wireless technology has been talked about for many years, but its only just starting to blossom.

It is predicated that by the end of 2010, users in more than 80 US cities may be able to ditch their Wi-Fi in favour of WiMax. It's taken such a long time due WiMax vendors such as Clearwire Communications LLC suffering numerous delays in rolling out services.

A recent ramp-up in Clearwire deployments bodes well for WiMax, but it may not have the chance to fully get off the ground before a competing technology called Long-Term Evolution (LTE) does it in.

Craig Mathias, principal analyst at Farpoint Group, sees WiMax taking a minority stake in the wireless broadband future. "LTE will eventually be a combined broadband voice/data solution that can do everything that WiMax can and more," he said.

Mathias believes that LTE could get up to 80 percent of the global market share in future cellular installations.

"This leaves WiMax with a potential market share that cannot exceed 20 percent - but that's still a huge number, assuming four billion users around 2020 or so," he said. "You do the math. The opportunity is nothing to sneeze at."

The promise of WiMax

Clearwire and partners like Intel, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cisco want to change the last networking mile in the same way that Wi-Fi changed the last 100 feet of networking: by complementing or possibly replacing the existing technologies.

WiMax can cover up to 31 square miles instead of the few hundred square feet per access point provided by the more familiar 802.11g and 802.11n Wi-Fi technologies.

In theory, WiMax can also deliver more than 75Mbps data-transfer speeds. In practice, it doesn't have either that range or that speed. But with real-world speeds of up to 9Mps, it's about as fast as today's standard 802.11g (though not as fast as 802.11n), and it offers far greater range than any Wi-Fi technology.

Arthur Giftakis, vice president of engineering at Towerstream, a US WiMax provider for businesses, believes WiMax will deliver "high-speed mobile services that consumers and business users alike are demanding more and more", such as the ability to watch sports highlights on a laptop on the train or download apps on a handheld device.

"WiMax will enable you to do those things faster than previous technologies," he said.

WiMax incorporates quality of service technologies for prioritising network traffic, and that is particularly important for VoIP and video applications, said Joel Payne, vice president of engineering and operations at Sparkplug, a US ISP serving the business market.

In contrast, Wi-Fi access points can be overwhelmed by multiple clients demanding simultaneous access. "The WiMax protocol will be important for applications that require a lot of data to be transmitted on time, and to decrease packet loss and latency," said Payne.

Jesse Jones, owner of Matanuska Wireless, an American data communications company, agreed, citing Internet Protocol television as a technology that can greatly benefit from improved quality of service.

"IPTV via WiMax is one of the most exciting developments," Jones said. However, he added, "there is no word yet" on when the first working IPTV via WiMax models will be available.

Broadband speed test

NEXT PAGE: How fast, how far, how much?

  1. LET is hot on its heels and could even overtake the technology
  2. How fast, how far, how much?
  3. When can I get WiMax?
  4. The LTE threat
  5. Looking ahead