The long term future for WiFi

As commercial support for WiMAX strengthens one is entitled to ask questions about the long term future of the technology. We consider the pro and cons of WiMAX. The pros and the cons

A natural comparison is often made between WiMAX and WiFi. Normally, the advantages of WiMAX come well to the fore. WiMAX serves carrier networks and is therefore more robust, WiFi started in homes and businesses. WiMAX can function in 30 square mile areas, WiFi can only play its part in areas of a few thousand square feet.

Beyond the purely technological criteria WiMAX has received commercial endorsements. Domestic carrier Sprint Nextel is supporting it, to the surprise of one firm of researchers, Farpoint Group, which noted that the company endorsed WiMAX when it could easily have added other high-speed features.

Also bullish is Nortel Networks, whose WiMAX general manager Peter MacKinnon is challenging any rival to a duel to decide which is the superior product. Nortel can claim to have spent seven years of research in Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and Multiple Input/Multiple Output (MIMO) smart antenna technology. More important, it has a commercial mobile WiMAX kit that Peter MacKinnon promotes as offering a cost-per-bit ratio three times better than any other vendor's commercial WiMAX equipment, not to mention a ten-fold improvement over present 3G technology.

Speed King

WiMAX is quick, offering transmission speeds up to 70Mb/s. Compare this with other contemporary speeds: 3G services such as CDMA EV-DO download at 300kb/s-500kb/s although, as is stressed below, WiFi can produce multi-Mb speeds.

This means that WiMAX will face a challenge in direct response to its own success. As Farpoint Group points out, carriers are discussing standards that will provide equal bandwidth to WiMAX.

One irony is that WiMAX followed the lead of WiFi in working to a standard (802.11), thereby boosting sales of wireless LANs. Standardised design and production in both technologies mean greater incentives to buy and install the system, not to mention economies of scale in the form of lower costs.

Where WiMAX is vulnerable is in the fact that there are four ways to boost wireless data velocity. Cellular network protocols are emerging and supporting higher transmission speeds. WiFi can still generate at 54Mb/s. Lastly there is the individual technology of Qualcomm.

It is not plain sailing for WiMAX. Indeed, installing WiMAX can be more complex than other technologies. Cellular carriers need only make one carrier upgrade but WiMAX requires two networks to be operating.

If, of course, money is the criterion rather than technology, WiMAX suffers as carrier equipment can cost several thousand dollars, maybe US$500 for the end-user. WiFi WAN carrier products are usually cheaper, and already fitted into hand-held and laptop devices.

Telecoms analysts and observers - not to mention that factor called the customer - wait to see which technology will win out. Or whether the two will co-exist.

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