Ready to rumble: in the ring with WiMAX and Wi-Fi

Ready to rumble: in the ring with WiMAX and Wi-Fi

Nguyet Le Thomas

[Round 1:] Wi-Fi, full of swagger and the undisputed champion, has landed the first blows. Wi-Fi is so pervasive that the typical laptop computer sold today comes equipped with a Wi-Fi chip: a built-in radio that lets users surf the Web wirelessly from the office, the home or even the local coffee shop. A single base station–a box with a wired connection to the Internet, such as DSL, cable or a T1 line–can broadcast to multiple users across distances as far as 300 feet indoors and a quarter of a mile outdoors.

[Round 2:] Enter the challenger, WiMAX: a new technology standard that provides wireless broadband Internet connections at speeds similar to Wi-Fi but over distances of up to 30 miles from a central tower. It’s been called the “last mile” Holy Grail, and some contend that its imminent arrival portends doom for Wi-Fi. What’s more, WiMAX promises mobility–allowing users to IM or check stock quotes while riding in a car, for example.

With standards in place and certified products coming, WiMAX may be positioned to become a significant force in the emerging fixed/mobile network convergence sector later this decade.

[Round 3:] Will Wi-Fi and WiMAX lower their gloves and complement one another, or duke it out to the end? In one corner, most vendors and analysts believe that Wi-Fi and WiMAX will complement each other.

In the other corner are those like Ken Stanwood, president and CEO of Cygnus Multimedia Communications, who believes WiMAX will replace Wi-Fi entirely for residential applications.

“[WiMAX] has an extremely well-developed and solid Quality of Service (QoS) where Wi-Fi does not,” he says. “When you start doing things like wirelessly transmitting high-definition television, people don’t want flickers. In addition, WiMAX provides a substantially more efficient use of available bandwidth, a feature that helps avoid radio frequency interference.”

To be accurate, WiMAX is really a marketing name bestowed on a specific type of wireless technology that adheres to a certain derivation of the IEEE 802.16 standard. Backers, who expect it to become a critical and enduring network technology, have learned from the mistakes of earlier wireless broadband efforts, and they’ve attempted to avoid such problems as poor interoperability and high overhead. In addition to its strong QoS and efficiency, WiMAX promises a better-performing, less-expensive alternative to many technologies that already serve its target applications.

[Round 4:] Until recently, WiMAX development efforts–including interoperability standards and economics–were fragmented, says Jeff Orr, senior product manager for Proxim, a manufacturer of broadband access equipment.

That changed last year, with the formation of the WiMAX Forum by a group of high-tech and telecommunications firms that wanted to use the IEEE’s standards to create a technology that can deliver wireless broadband and gain wide acceptance. The forum boasts membership by more than 150 companies including Intel, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Alcatel, Fujitsu, SBC, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, British Telecom and France Telecom.

Intel has been one of the leading proponents of WiMAX because its silicon chips are a crucial part of WiMAX equipment. “Intel believes in the concept of wireless broadband wherever you go,” says Julie Coppernoll, marketing director of Intel’s wireless networking group. “We believe in the fundamentals of what 802.16 can provide. Wi-Fi is limited to the home or hotspot environment. It doesn’t provide the sort of broad ubiquitous coverage that we expect WiMAX networks to provide.”

[Round 5:] Although the WiMAX market could be worth anywhere from $2 billion to $9 billion a year by 2009, WiMAX today is in its infancy. Furthermore, it’s not the only game in town when it comes to wireless broadband. EV-DO is already up and running under the auspices of Verizon Communications, which has rolled out EV-DO service in several major markets and plans to offer it in 30% of its network by the end of the year. Flash-OFDM (orthogonal-frequency-division-multiplexing), advocated by Nextel, is another contender (see “Flash-OFDM Challenges EV-DO,” page 22, Nov. 15).

To move standardization along, the WiMAX Forum plans to start hosting interoperability “plugfests” by the end of the year, says Proxim’s Orr. Much as the Wi-Fi Alliance established certifying interoperability for the 802.11 standard, the WiMAX Forum is devising systems profiles, which specify operating frequency, modulation scheme and channelization.

Coppernoll estimates that the first WiMAX-certified products will hit the market in the first half of 2005. Late next year, vendors will introduce indoor, self-installable customer-premises equipment (CPEs) allowing businesses and consumers to receive high-speed broadband service and distribute it locally to individual computers via wireless. Such products are created under the 802.16-2004 standard based on fixed mobility.

By 2006-2007, portable WiMAX–or 802.16e–will enter the mix. This iteration of the standard will do away with the need for CPEs. Manufacturers will integrate WiMAX into PC cards and eventually into laptops and other mobile devices, Intel’s Coppernoll says. Providers offering fixed-antenna WiMAX service will be able to offer what amounts to fully portable wireless broadband. Transmitter networks will begin to blanket urban areas.

[Round 6:] So–is Wi-Fi a dead man walking? Not so fast, says Anshu Dua, senior analyst at Pyramid Research. He notes that in addition to being deeply penetrated in households, Wi-Fi is also entrenched in the enterprise and is continuing to grow in vertical markets such as healthcare, retail, education and hospitality.

“Any certain notion that WiMAX will kill Wi-Fi is ludicrous,” says Dua. “They can co-exist together in a network layout where Wi-Fi serves the end users and WiMAX potentially offering the backhaul. Wi-Fi is here to stay.”

Dua asserts that while the emergence of WiMAX will give users a powerful new way to connect to the Internet, it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen to the scale that it has for Wi-Fi. For one thing, the cost of building a network transmission infrastructure can be quite prohibitive. Similarly, it could take manufacturers years to reach the economies of scale that would enable consumer-priced WiMAX equipment. Additionally, adoption rates will depend on how operators deploy and price the service.

[Round 7:] The involvement of one big player in particular, Intel, should help speed things along. A few weeks ago, Intel announced that it would make a significant investment in Craig McCaw’s Clearwire wireless broadband company. The deal calls for Clearwire to install WiMAX network equipment using Intel chips. Since last summer, Intel, Clearwire and Clearwire subsidiary NextNet have been working together to develop, test and deploy WiMAX base stations and customer premises equipment designed and built by NextNet Wireless based on Intel silicon.

The Intel/Clearwire announcement comes at an opportune time, says Yankee Group analyst Lindsay Schroth, who notes that despite standardization and the backing of a number of equipment makers, WiMAX has yet to attract a rollout commitment from a major U.S. service provider.

“There’s room for a third access provider [in addition to DSL and cable] if McCaw can create a service model that is disruptive enough and help to drive the industry forward,” says Schroth. “The WiMAX Forum needs initiative like that.”

Regardless, Schroth contends that “Intel and Clearwire have got a tough market ahead.” She explains, “The consumer market that McCaw is targeting–network is already built and it’s changing day by day.”

Clearwire says it plans to look at blackspots not served by cable or DSL technology. And it has already launched consumer trials in Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Cloud, Minn.

[Round 8:] The application of WiMAX in emerging markets where there is no infrastructure to deliver broadband Internet service is a logical business proposition. Rural areas or urban pockets that are beyond the reach of DSL or cable service represent about 20% of the potential U.S. market, according to Schroth.

But ultimately, the economics will require more than filling in blackspots. “We’re still in the stage where many companies are not making [enough] money to stay in the WiMAX market while they wait for consumers to adopt and then pay for the technology,” says Julie Ask, a senior analyst specializing in Wi-Fi at Jupiter Research. “Intel and Clearwire’s plans are good and you definitely have a market for that but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

Joe Laszlo, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research who focuses on wireless broadband, says the industry cannot assume that users will adopt a new technology just because it’s there. “In the early days of broadband, people would assume that because broadband was automatically faster, consumers would jump on the bandwagon,” he notes. “But most people were happy with their dial-up. Proponents like Clearwire and Intel will have to prove WiMAX’s value and be prepared to back it up to a skeptical audience.”

[Round 9:] Wi-Fi’s audience, meanwhile, remains enthusiastic. Wi-Fi adoption has been accelerated by its ease of use, widespread availability and low cost. According to research firm IDC, 64 million Wi-Fi systems will have been sold by the end of 2004 in the U.S. Wi-Fi is expected to penetrate 8.7 million households by the end of the year and climb to 28 million by 2008, according to a Jupiter Research/Ipsos-Insight Entertainment Technologies survey. And with some cities subsidizing Wi-Fi networks, the momentum may be unstoppable.

[Round 10:] Unlike Wi-Fi, which potentially can be installed by most broadband user, “WiMAX adoption is limited to operators who make WiMAX available,” Dua points out. And the competition is entrenched.

“Certainly, companies will have some success in WiMAX,” says Dua, “but the fixed boys are going to keep getting better and that’s going to raise that competition bar.”

Ask of Jupiter Research notes that adoption is also dependent on user sentiment. “In April 2003, we conducted a survey where 6% of the consumers we surveyed said they would trial WiMAX. The number went up to 8% in April 2004, and I think it’s about 10% right now. It’s climbing but still relatively low. Many consumers don’t really know about WiMAX,” she explains. “On the other hand, Wi-Fi’s take rate on Dell computers [for example] is at 80%. It’s being embedded in electronics gear [and deployed] in the home, and demand for Wi-Fi continues to rise.”

[Round 11:] And there is another angle where Wi-Fi holds an edge: spectrum. Because it operates on unlicensed frequency, Wi-Fi does not have to face regulatory obstacles or ownership rights and availability of usage.

In the U.S., only a few spectrum holders own the licenses suitable for WiMAX–Sprint and Nextel being the top two asset holders–and their interest in the technology has not yet been established. For instance, Nextel owns a good slice of licensed spectrum at 2.5 GHz that would be a nice fit for WiMAX. However, the company has been adamant about continuing support for Flarion Flash-OFDM technology for at least another two to three years. The mere restrictions placed on WiMAX because of spectrum licenses represent a major obstacle to adoption in the U.S., Dua contends.

[Round 12:] But WiMAX can deliver a counterpunch of its own: Its QoS is carrier-grade whereas Wi-Fi’s QoS is not, as Stanwood of Cygnus explains. This manifests itself in several ways. For one, because WiMAX does not use contention-based MAC protocol, such as CSMA (carrier-sense multiple-access/collision avoidance), it’s able to deliver more reliable QoS per bandwidth assignments. It becomes critical across longer distances, Stanwood says, and in the long run, will allow WiMAX to set itself a notch above Wi-Fi.

The judgment is still out. Part of the challenge in assessing Wi-Fi vs. WiMAX is that in some ways they are distinct enough to defy comparison. Wi-Fi is primarily an end-user solution that includes residential and local enterprise implementations as well as networks serving densely populated urban areas. WiMAX is a more muscular technology deployable at the service-provider level, but it must fight off both existing fixed-line networks and up-and-coming wireless-broadband competition. For now, proponents of both Wi-Fi and WiMAX are likely to say that rather than one technology knocking out the other, they will, instead, co-exist.

WiMAX Deployment Milestones

Q4 2004

WiMAX Forum compatibility “plugfests”

Q1-2 2005

First WiMAX-certified products introduced

Q3-4 2005

First consumer-focused equipment

Q4-Q1 2006-2007

Portable WiMAX (802.16e) integrated into mobile devices


Optimistic projections place the market at $9 billion

Summary of 802.16 (WiMAX) Standards

802.16 802.16a/802.16-2004

Completion date Dec 2001 802.16a: Jan 2003

802.16-2004: Q3 2004

Spectrum 10 to 66 GHz <11 GHz

Channel conditions Line of sight only Non line of sight

Channel bandwidths 20, 25 and 28 MHz Selectable between

1.25 and 20 MHz

Mobility Fixed Fixed

Typical cell radius 1 to 3 miles 3 to 5 miles (30 miles

max, based on tower

height, antenna gain

and power transmit)


Completion date Q3 2004

Spectrum <6 GHz

Channel conditions Non line of sight

Channel bandwidths Same as 802.16a with

uplink subchannels

Mobility Pedestrian mobility,

regional roaming

Typical cell radius 1 to 3 miles

Source: WiMAX Forum

RELATED ARTICLE: Where similarities start and end.

How similar are Wi-Fi and WiMAX? The answer is “somewhat.”

Perhaps more relevant is that there are opportunities to leverage the work the industry has already put into Wi-Fi chip technology to the benefit of WiMAX. For example, both technologies use OFDM (orthogonal-frequency-division-multiplexing) modulation. Both also operate in the same frequency neighborhoods, giving WiMAX developers the opportunity to draft off of Wi-Fi work, says Jeff Orr, senior product marketing manager at Proxim and a member of the WiMAX Forum.

But the two implementations are not identical. WiMAX radios require higher power because they must transmit over much longer distances than Wi-Fi. By extension, regulatory issues play more of a role.

Another contrast is that WiMAX operates both in licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Wi-Fi, for the most part, operates in unlicensed spectrum, making it easier to deploy but potentially unsecure due to overcrowding in some spectrum bandwidths. Because of its licensed spectrum requirement, vendors and industry groups such as the WiMAX Forum must deal with governmental bodies that control spectrum allocation worldwide. For service providers, deploying WiMAX might be a question of whether they have the leverage of owning spectrum or not. Currently, Sprint and Nextel own the most spectrum collectively, with Craig McCaw’s Clearwire a distant third.

Another major difference between the two technologies is standards flexibility. For Wi-Fi, the 802.11 standard dictates use in one channel width and one frequency–either 2.4 or 5 GHz. In contrast, WiMAX’s 802.16-2004 standard can work in a number of frequency bands, including the 5 GHz band that Wi-Fi already occupies. Depending on the frequency, bandwidth and range capabilities of WiMAX systems will change, Orr says.

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