September 8, 2004 By Emily Montandon
Now, as industry standards for wireless broadband technology are rolled out, governments may be able to control their own digital destiny through the evolution of WiMAX.
WiMAX is like Wi-Fi's big brother -- it can deliver high-speed wireless connectivity over distances measured in miles, rather than yards.
Just like its little brother, WiMAX has its own association to promote growth in the marketplace and make sure vendors are on the same standards page.
The WiMAX Forum, a consortium of equipment and component suppliers such as Intel and Alvarion, works to promote adoption of the 802.16 standard for wireless broadband by ensuring interoperability among WiMAX-certified products.
The first wave of WiMAX products is expected in 2005, and the new industry standards and guidelines are expected to lower equipment costs and create stability in the market. Governments looking to deploy a network no longer have to depend on one vendor's proprietary solution, since any WiMAX product will work with any other piece of WiMAX equipment.
The 802.16 standard, on which the WiMAX guidelines will be based, is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard for wireless broadband technology, which uses the 2-11 GHz spectrum. The technology eliminates line-of-sight issues often plaguing Wi-Fi deployments and allows for farther reach than the 802.11 standard, making it a relatively cheap alternative to wired broadband solutions for reaching sparsely populated areas.
Many governments are unaware of wireless broadband's capabilities, said Jasper Bruinzeel, Alvarion director of strategic marketing, because many in government see Wi-Fi as a wireless broadband solution.
"Really it's not," he said. "Wi-Fi is the technology for indoor use. Wireless broadband is the one for outdoor use and long-range applications -- technologies that cover an entire city or county."
Though there are some examples of Wi-Fi use in outdoor networks, he said such implementations can be challenging.
"In many cases, if you look closely, only very small downtown areas are covered, or we're talking about a multimillion dollar project," he said.
WiMAX networks, though optimal within three to four miles of the base station, can reach as far as 30 miles.
The standards and guidelines being developed for wireless broadband will likely boost acceptance of the technology, said Paul Butcher, manager of Intel's State and Local Government Marketing, because established standards allow hundreds or thousands of engineers from many different companies to contribute to developing the standard, resulting in a technology that everybody agrees on.
"You get the best-in-class features and see costs reduced because all kinds of people are building equipment to that specification," he said. "You see better interoperability between the equipment. So once the standard process happens, we tend to see technologies really taking off."
While wireless broadband may take over as the appropriate solution for outdoor use, Wi-Fi won't go away anytime soon, said Intel's Joe English, director of marketing for broadband wireless.
"Wi-Fi and WiMAX complement one another -- Wi-Fi being the technology that's the end point, the last 100 meters of the last mile," he said, adding that as the technologies mature, Wi-Fi will be capable of faster speeds and probably will remain the preferable technology for indoor use for some time.
While the standards will likely promote awareness and adoption of the technology, some governments already forged ahead. The technology is more affordable than laying fiber, and a few jurisdictions took broadband into their own hands.