WiMax is here: What you need to know

Early adopters, analysts reveal the pros and cons of the wireless broadband service

With the launch of Sprint's WiMax wireless broadband data service, called Xohm (pronounced "zome") in Baltimore in early October, Sprint was able to rightly claim it is the first carrier to offer the long-awaited official version of the technology to businesses and consumers. (Clearwire, a provider of pre-standard WiMax service that Sprint's Xohm unit will be merged into later this year, began its service offerings earlier.)

The Sprint WiMax service operates as fast as 4Mbps. One early WiMax adopter says Xohm is delivering good connection speeds: "When it first started I was getting about 2.1Mbps, but yesterday we were getting 3.2Mbps," says Richard Levy, president of National Imaging Systems, an HP imaging products dealer.

[ Find out whether WiMax delivers as promised with our hands-on review in the InfoWorld Test Center's "Road test: Does WiMax work in the real world?" ]

Levy says it gives him about three times the performance of his T1 line but costs just $35 per month; by contrast, a typical T1 line usually costs him at least $500 per month.

And there's the benefit of having high-speed access anywhere you happen to be: "Time is money. If you have five to six salespeople looking up pricing with clients on the [phone] line waiting for an answer, the faster response time makes a big difference in customer satisfaction," Levy says.

WiMax works well if you do business locally
Michael Thelander, CEO at the market researcher Signals Research Group, warns that what may be good for one small business owner in Baltimore may not be the answer for a Fortune 500 company. "If you are a company that operates in Baltimore this service is fine. But larger companies want broadband data wherever they are," says Thelander.

Companies thinking of broadband for remote users may still prefer to use a service with nationwide coverage. And although WiMax has a higher data rate than AT&T's current version of HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access), says Thelander, there is nothing to stop AT&T from upgrading its network with more backhaul, thus giving large companies the same user experience as WiMax with a far greater coverage area. AT&T's HSPA network is available in dozens of cities, to both iPhone 3G users and notebook users with 3G cards. Equipment automatically switches to the slower EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) networks when outside the 3G HSPA network's range. There is no similar rollover for WiMax service when out of range, but Sprint expects to offer WiMax-EGDE combo cards for laptops and for Intel to offer combo WiMax/EDGE chips for use on laptop motherboards.

Another catch is the WiMax technology can be pricier to deploy, limiting carriers' ability to expand. Sprint is deploying its WiMax service on a 2,500MHz frequency far higher than Verizon's 700MHz and 1,700MHz frequencies. "The higher the frequency, the more cell sites needed and the more expensive it is to deploy," Thelander says. The question becomes how long Sprint will be able to subsidize the cost of broadband data before it is forced to raise subscriber fees.

Sprint plans to set up service in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and northern Virginia, in addition to its existing service in Baltimore. Clearwire operates now in Anchorage; Boise; Dayton, Ohio; Duluth, Minn.; Honolulu; Nashville; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; Rochester, N.Y.; Seattle; Syracuse, N.Y.; Tacoma, Wash.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; plus another dozen smaller cities in central California, northeast Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, North Carolina, northern Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The appeal of WiMax to IT: wireless WANs
Surprisingly, it is not WiMax's mobile capabilities that will appeal most to IT managers. Rather it may be its use as a network service in remote offices where setting up a T1 line with a telecom service would take time, have higher costs, and be more difficult to manage.

Levy says it took five minutes to set up. "It would have taken less, but I use an old Apple [Mac] and I had to upgrade the operating system."

Instead of a wireless PCMCIA card, Levy uses a desktop receiver and router to route the service around the office. "It's about the size of a double-handled coffee cup."

Don Stroberg, vice president of sales for Sprint's Xohm unit, believes that just as some users have cut landline telephone service and now rely solely on their cell phones, Xohm will appeal to home and office users as a sole networking fabric.

WiMax is not faster Wi-Fi, but it is reliable and standard
Perhaps one obstacle that needs to be overcome before WiMax is acceptable to an IT manager is the simple fact that WiMax is often confused with Wi-Fi. But only the names are similar. For example, WiMax is 100 percent IP, whereas Wi-Fi is not.

Bob Egan, one of the creators of the original Wi-Fi spec and now chief mobile analyst for TowerGroup, says network security, reliability, and manageability are where the major differences lie between WiMax and Wi-Fi. "When consumers reach for the telephone, they want the dial tone to be there," he says. Because WiMax operates in the regulated spectrum band, Sprint can layer in enterprise-level security and reliability that is not available with Wi-Fi. "Wi-Fi competes with garage door openers, microwaves, and a hobbyist's remote control airplane," Egan says.

WiMax has also been in development for about 15 years, giving it the edge over technologies such as LTE (Long Term Evolution), the 3G successor whose standard has only recently been approved. The 802.16d "fixed wireless" WiMax standard used by Sprint and Clearwire was finalized in 2005; the 802.16e mobile version was finalized in 2005 as well.

"WiMax has become a telecom-grade, high-performance, wide-area wireless network, while its broadband wireless competition is only now developing the test equipment," Egan notes.