WiMax (Part 1)

by [Published on 26 Nov. 2009 / Last Updated on 26 Nov. 2009]

A three part series on 3G wireless broadband by discussing WiMax.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

Introduction

WiMax is a technology which has been touted as the future of long-range wireless networking. Many people consider WiMax synonymous with the term 3G. Lately though this association has proven tenuous, largely due to the emergence of a technology called Long Term Evolution (LTE). This series of articles will discuss the rivalry of these two third generation long-range wireless networking technologies.

What is WiMax?

WiMax is a standard of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) with the 802.16 designation. From my previous article on WiFi (802.11), we now know that the 802 part of 802.16 means that the standard was implemented by the LAN/MAN subcommittee which has the 802 designation. The 16 of 802.16 means that this standard was created/approved by the Broadband Wireless Access Working Group within the LAN/MAN subcommittee.

History of WiMax

The idea for what is now known as WiMax began in the mid 1990's. At that time, the technology industry was seeing tremendous growth and new, exciting ideas were being found everywhere. It was clear to telecommunications service providers that there was a huge desire for broadband Internet access. This desire was coming from both home users and corporate users. Many telecommunications companies began planning and designing distribution networks that would be capable of handling the high traffic volumes expected. In most cases, their answer was fibre optic cables.

The need to use fibre optic cables to provide widespread broadband Internet access came at a huge cost. Some estimates put this cost at about $300 per foot of fibre. As you can imagine this type of network would get very expensive very quickly. As this was being done, some industry players were busy looking for an alternative which could provide the widespread broadband Internet access without costing an arm and a leg. Their solution was to use a wireless technology.

In the early days of this wireless broadband access, and still today actually, its biggest cheerleader was Intel. Intel was in the midst of a prolonged slump in sales and saw an opportunity in this type of wireless access, and for good reason. Up until this point Intel had been a key player, a very successful player I might add, in the emerging WiFi market. Intel had been involved with WiFi since the beginning and even integrated WiFi capability into their popular Centrino line of processors. Since Intel had the expertise and the experience in WiFi wireless access they were hoping that they could leverage that into success in another type of wireless access.

Of course, Intel had some challenges. Firstly, in North America many service providers were already implementing fibre optic networks for the delivery of broadband Internet access so many business leaders felt that the market for wireless broadband Internet access may be limited to developing markets. Secondly, some service providers had already begun experimenting with their own wireless broadband solutions. 

In these early days there was a real patchwork of technologies which didn't adhere to any agreed upon standard. Without an agreed upon industry standard many users were hesitant to purchase the required hardware for fear of being "locked-in" to a particular service provider. Or worse, that the technology would prove unpopular and would quickly become obsolete. This fear by consumers is perfectly rational and has been previously shown to be justified (just look at the VHS / Beta fiasco). So, with consumers hesitant to purchase the required hardware it is understandable that hardware manufacturers would be hesitant to even make the devices and risk low sale volumes. Intel recognized the problems of not having an agreed upon standard and set about to convince others. It didn't take a lot of convincing.

What's in a name?

In 2001, the IEEE released their 802.16 standard for broadband wireless access. Shortly thereafter the WiMax Forum was set up to promote the standard, and the term WiMax was born.

You might not think that a name is all that important for such a standard. In many cases I would agree; as long as the name is not stupid (that is; it needs to be easy to pronounce, easy to remember, and be reflective of the standards capabilities). In the case of WiMax though I think the name is an important part of its story. 

When most people hear WiMax they think "Oh. Like WiFi, only to the max." I think this is very important, and I also think that the name WiMax was purposefully chosen to evoke such thoughts from consumers. What I am not sure about is whether this was a smart thing to do or not. On the plus side everyone who is even somewhat familiar with WiFi can immediately grasp the concept of WiMax; that it can provide wireless access to the Internet but has a longer range and larger throughput that WiFi. On the negative side of things is that all of the negative thoughts towards WiFi (justified or not) also get transferred over to WiMax.

For instance, WiFi is primarily viewed as a home networking solution (or perhaps a small office, or a coffee shop). There may be some network security issues, there could also be interference issues, and there is also some significant performance degradation when there are multiple users (except of course for 802.11n, see my article on that for the reason why). Many people can accept these issues because of the convenience provided by WiFi. However all of these issues (in most cases incorrectly) get transposed upon WiMax. As a result, the WiMax Forum has opened up the opportunity for a competitor to become the "professional" standard for "serious" networks; in other words the "big-boy" standard.

The Technology

Why are these criticisms incorrectly transposed onto WiMax? Well, let us start with security. For starters a great deal has been learned from WiFi and there is no logical reason to think that these lessons would not be applied to WiMax. Also, most security concerns of WiFi stem from the fact that the user, or consumer, is the network administrator and typically is not a networking security expert. WiMax is not in the hands of the user; it is a telecommunications service provider's solution. This means that the service provider is administering the network and will (or should be) employing network security professionals to secure the network properly.

In regards to performance degradation resulting from many users, this is not an issue with WiMax. First of all, this problem has been largely solved in WiFi with the inclusion of MIMO. Likewise MIMO has been included in the WiMax standard. If you would like to know more about WiMax's implementation of MIMO I would recommend you read this article which I found quite interesting. 

Another aspect of the WiMax technology that can help with performance degradation (speed degradation as well as noise caused by interference) is that WiMax uses leased spectrum. This means that WiMax uses frequencies which costs a lot of money to use. So your microwave, or cordless phone would not be causing any interference problems with your WiMax connection and the service provider can better allocate sufficient bandwidth per user to avoid the speed degradation (to a point at least).

So that's a basic introduction to WiMax. In my next article of this series I will discuss LTE as a competitor to WiMax. As always if you have any comments or suggestions please do not hesitate to email me!

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

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