WiMax in 2010: Too little, too late?

WiMax is finally making wide-area wireless broadband a reality in many cities -- but another technology is fast encroaching.

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Further, "the flat, open fields of Kansas will see different coverage on 3.65 GHz than my neighborhood nestled at the base of three mountain ranges in Alaska," he continued. A base station mounted 40 feet high on a tower will reach far fewer subscribers than if it was mounted 80 feet high. And the amount of throughput users see on a wireless connection is directly related to the signal quality, Jones said. "You really can't make general statements related to speed and coverage because not every deployment is the same."

Clearwire reports that its WiMax users are seeing average speeds of 4Mbit/sec. to 6Mbit/sec., with bursts exceeding 15Mbit/sec. -- about the same throughput that DSL services provide. To get that level of performance, you can expect to pay about as much as you currently do for DSL.

Although WiMax offers no huge speed advantage over today's technologies, pricing may be a selling point. Towerstream's Giftakis said, "I can confirm that our business customers will be paying less than market T1 prices to get WiMax. On the consumer side, Clearwire is offering service from $10 for a day to $50 for a month. I don't expect this will drastically change in the near term."

WiMax, Wi-Fi or both?

To access WiMax, you're going to have a wide variety of hardware choices, including notebooks, netbooks, handhelds and mobile Internet devices with built-in WiMax radios, according to Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing for WiMax at Intel Corp. "Numerous embedded WiMax laptops based on Intel Centrino 2 processor technology are now available," she said via e-mail. In addition, USB modems will bring WiMax into your home or office, replacing your wired Internet connection.

But WiMax won't necessarily replace Wi-Fi. WiMax/Wi-Fi translators, such as Cradlepoint Inc.'s Clear Spot router, can create a local Wi-Fi network from a WiMax signal. That Cradlepoint device, which is available now, allows any existing, off-the-shelf Wi-Fi device to connect to a Clearwire WiMax network, said Coppernoll. "The Clear Spot creates a personal Wi-Fi hot spot that travels with consumers anywhere they happen to be within Clearwire's mobile WiMax service area," she said. Using it, people can avoid local Wi-Fi hot spot fees -- and, as WiMax rollouts continue, they might be able to pick up WiMax service in areas where they can't find a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Other companies are also bridging the gap between WiMax's 802.16 and Wi-Fi's 802.11 protocols. Cisco Systems Inc., for instance, plans to introduce devices with that capability under its Linksys brand within the next six months.

Wi-Fi Alliance executive director Edgar Figueroa also sees WiMax and Wi-Fi working hand in glove rather than the newer technology replacing the older. "While WiMax provides excellent range, Wi-Fi's performance profile and power consumption traits make it the right networking technology for the local area," he said in an e-mail interview. "As we're seeing today on the cellular side, WiMax providers will also look to Wi-Fi as an alternative connection to migrate users from scarce licensed spectrum -- and users will gravitate to Wi-Fi for its affordability."

When can I get WiMax?

Clearwire's WiMax service, known as Clear, is available in four large U.S. cities today -- Baltimore, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore. -- and in 10 smaller cities in Texas, Idaho and Washington. Rollouts in Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle, Honolulu and Charlotte are also scheduled for this year. The company plans to offer service to as many as 120 million customers in 80 U.S. markets, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Houston and San Francisco, by the end of 2010.

While Clearwire gets the lion's share of WiMax publicity, it's far from the only company in the WiMax broadcasting business. AT&T Inc., for example, has rolled out WiMax service in Alaska for residents of Anchorage and Juneau. And Intel is working with Clearwire to launch the "WiMax Innovation Network" in California's Silicon Valley to serve as a test environment for mobile application developers at companies like Google Inc.

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