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What is WiMax, and where is it in the US?

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 1/29/2012

WiMax has been touted for a while as the route to realizing the dream of mobile broadband everywhere. It was slow in getting here, and the rough economy saw many projects set for 2008 delayed or cancelled. But it is moving forward this year, perhaps with some federal stimulus.

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    What is WiMax?

    WiMax, which stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is a Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) standard. In very simple terms, it is similar to WiFi, but with far greater range. Where a Wi-Fi base station can handle a house, office floor, class room or coffee shop, a single WiMax tower can provide access to a neighborhood, office building, campus, or business district.

    There are also provisions of the standard for mobile Internet. This would make it possible to maintain an Internet connection while in a moving vehicle, the connection switching from tower to tower as you travel, like it does with a cell phone. This also opens up VOIP for mobile phones.

    WiFi and WiMax work alongside each other, but aren't truly compatible. You can use a WiMax receiver and hook it up to a traditional WiFi router with an Ethernet cable, creating a WiFi hotspot that connects to the Internet by WiMax. But, you can't get a WiMax signal directly with the WiFi adapter in your laptop. PCMIA WiMax adapters and laptops that have them built in are available. They are still far rarer and somewhat more expensive then WiFi, which is one barrier to penetration.

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    You Want Line of Site Backhaul with That?

    That was the Non-Line of Site (NLOS) side of WiMax. Where there is a direct Line of Site, range increases to 30 miles. That means that WiMax can do a lot of its own backhaul. A tower with hundreds of NLOS users could send their communication to another LOS tower up to 30 miles away.

    Using outdoor repeaters, a signal could travel hundreds of miles before it ties into a land connection. That can be a lot cheaper than running cable out to the tower. Users out of range of NLOS could set up an LOS connection, though this would be a more expensive installation, and obviously be fixed, not mobile. Indoor WiMax repeaters, as would deliver WiMax throughout an office building, are less common, since WiFi already fits that bill in many cases.

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    Where is WiMax in the US?

    The biggest name in WiMax is Clearwire, owned in part by Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner, Intel, Google, and Bright House. They have launched two test markets: Portland, OR, and Baltimore, MD, under the Clear and Xohm brands, respectively. Clearwire will be launching WiMax networks in Dallas/FT, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Honolulu, and Charlotte this year, and New York, Boston, Washington DC, Houston, and San Francisco in 2010.

    Obviously, their plan is to go into large markets. They face stiffer DSL, cable, and mobile competition, but they have many more potential subscribers per tower. There is also the ability to sell pricier mobile Internet services to a receptive urban audience. This is a market where WiMax will eventually face competition from LTE.

    At the other end of the game are companies like DigitalBridge Communications. They provide broadband WiMax Internet under the BridgeMaxx brand to smaller communities with populations under 150000. The question of increasing WiMax coverage thus becomes two-fold. Are we referring to mobile Internet and more competition in large markets, or basic broadband access where it isn’t already available?

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    Spectrum Access: The Hurdle for Rural WiMax

    WiMax isn’t the perfect technology in every case, but it has a lot of advantages in delivering broadband to a large and sparsely populated area, so it is an obvious contender for the technology to bring the Internet to rural areas. But, in order to effectively provide coverage, ISPs need access to licensed spectrum.

    The problem is, Clearwire and other big telco’s own most of the appropriate frequencies. Local ISPs and governments need to be able to access that spectrum. The FCC needs to improve processes under which these limited area providers can lease spectrum in that area from the large companies that currently appear focused on metropolitan markets anyway.

    Other solutions include re-allocating the frequencies from soon to be discontinued analog TV broadcasts for WiMax, and making it available to local players. Again, the FCC has a lot on their plate. But if they get it right, it can go a long way to making sure the broadband stimulus has a long lasting impact.