WiMAX and the Metro Wireless Market
WiMAX versus Wi-Fi and 3G

By Michael F. Finneran, dBrn Associates, Inc.
Originally published June 2004, Updated March 2006




Wireless LANs based on the IEEE 802.11 or Wi-Fi standards have been a resounding success. However, when we shift the focus to the wide area, we see the market for broadband wireless service is still up for grabs. The cellular carriers were first to market with their 2.5G/3G data services, but those have yet to crack the megabit barrier. Mesh technology Is expanding the range of Wi-Fi from 100 meters to an entire metropolitan area, but the performance of those mesh networks has yet to be tested. Finally, there is the new contender in this space, WiMAX.


WiMAX, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is a metro-area wireless technology defined in the IEEE 802.16 standards, and promoted by the WiMAX Forum. Like the Wi-Fi Alliance, the WiMAX Forum looks to develop interoperability test suites to insure a multi-vendor solution that will result in lower cost products based on open standards. Internationally, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute's (ETSI) HIPERMAN initiative addresses the same area and shares much of the same technology.


Clearly the WiMAX Forum has not succeeded to the same degree as the Wi-Fi Alliance. Missed delivery dates and misdirected marketing programs in support of WiMAX have yielded little but confusion. We find that WiMAX is still compared with Wi-Fi, even though the two technologies address completely different markets and applications. The more appropriate comparison for WiMAX is cellular.


Besides the fact that they use radio transmission and have names that start with the letters "Wi", there is little in common between Wi-Fi and WiMAX. Wi-Fi is a short-range, local area technology designed to add mobility in private networks. WiMAX, on the other hand, was designed as a technology for carriers to use to deliver a metro area broadband wireless access (BWA) service. At some point, WiMAX might be adopted as a private network technology, but with the development of Wi-Fi Mesh technology, that day seems a long way off.


The initial WiMAX deployments will be carrier provided broadband wireless Internet access services to compete with cable modem and DSL. Longer term, Mobile WiMAX might provide an alternative to cellular data and possibly voice services, but that will prove to be a far more difficult market to crack. If the carrier market appears to be out of reach, WiMAX might shift its focus to private networks.


The purpose of this paper is to take an objective look at the wireless alternatives in the metro-area market and to provide a comparison among the WiMAX, Wi-Fi, and cellular technologies.



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About the author:


Michael F. Finneran is an independent telecommunications consulting specializing in wireless networks and technologies. Besides his research and consulting activities, he writes a regular column called Network Intelligence for Business Communications Review and teaches their seminars on Wireless Technologies and Wireless LANs.


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