WiMax is Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) on amphetamines: Way faster, way more reach, compared to WiFi. It blasts bits at speeds of up to 70 Megabits per second, shared amongst users. (Heavy on the “up to,” some caution.) As for reach, WiMax signals can move a theoretical 31 miles, although most say five to 10 miles is more likely. In short, what Wi-Fi is for the home or office, WiMax is for the subdivision or office park.
In the WiMax engine room, the technology goes by a more stultified name: The “Air Interface for Fixed Broadband Access Wireless Systems.” It moves under an IEEE specification, known as 802.16. (Wi-Fi moves under “the 802.11s,” to include their suffixes – “a,” “b,” and “g.”)
In one version (802.16e), WiMax works without the need for “line of sight” between the subscriber device (i.e., laptop) and the antenna. It’s achievable because its creators placed spectral boundaries between 2 and 11 Gigahertz. That spectrum, by the way, is both licensed and unlicensed.
WiMax carries a noteworthy list of well-heeled proponents, like Intel Corp, Motorola Inc., Qwest, Earthlink, and Alcatel. Intel is perhaps the most predictive. At wireless gatherings in 2004, Intel honchos predicted exterior-mount WiMax antennas in the $350 range; by the 2005 back-to-school season, they foresaw a sub-$200 indoor antenna, that people can install themselves. Slide-in WiMax cards for laptops and PCs were to follow in 2006.
WiMax gained early traction as an option for municipal broadband overbuilds. Most WiMax watchers say the service will likely come from “wireless ISPs,” which go by the spoken acronym “WISPs.” Some cities are already installing the equipment themselves, as a way to provide low-cost, city-wide broadband access. (Yikes.)
Others, including digital subscriber line provider Covad Communications Inc., are eyeing WiMax as a sort of “fill in technology,” to touch hard-to-reach areas.
WiMax as a fill-in technology is a workable cable angle, too: It’s entirely plausible to imagine WiMax as an answer for rural markets, or city pockets where dropping lines is tricky or prohibitively expensive.