3G is farthest along in market share, but WiMax isn't far behind.
When it comes to long-range, high-speed wireless broadband, there are really only two technologies currently worth noting—3G and WiMax. (Other technologies, including Bluetooth and WiFi, have their uses, but simply don't have the range to qualify as truly ubiquitous.)
3G has been around, at least in prospect, for what seems like forever. What's changed is that now telecom carriers are offering it as a means to connect to the Internet. Unfortunately, it's not an IP-based technology, and data rates are only between 200 Kbps and 2.4 Mbps—sometimes even slower than DSL. And only three major telecom carriers currently offer the service: Sprint Nextel Corp., Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless (T-Mobile announced in September that it would launch 3G services by 2007). Still, it's the most widespread mobile technology available in the U.S.—and it works, at least in densely populated urban areas that have coverage. "I've used it on the Acela train," says Gene Signorini, an analyst at Yankee Group. "It's not consistent, and the throughput you get depends on your proximity to a cell-phone tower, but it held up pretty well." Yankee predicts that only 4.9 percent of cell phone subscribers will have 3G capabilities by the end of this year. "We are just in the beginning of 3G mobility in the U.S., and even that isn't broadband as we know it. Not on a consistent basis comparable to DSL or Ethernet," Signorini says.
But the real key to ubiquitous wireless broadband may be WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or 802.16. With speeds of up to 70 Mbps, it's considerably faster than cellular 3G services, and is specifically designed to deliver media-rich data such as video. But the current flavor of "fixed" WiMax is not truly mobile or ubiquitous—yet—and won't be until at least the end of the decade, according to experts. Although it now has a range of roughly six miles, transmitting from cellular-like towers, there is no standard to transfer connections between nodes, which means that once you go out of range, you get disconnected. "Think of it like shining a really big spotlight in one area," says Ellen Daley, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "You can be mobile in that area, but can't transfer to another area." Products for fixed WiMax—which completed its standard this year—won't be available until early 2006.
Analysts agree that truly mobile WiMax will be more cost efficient in the long run than cellular technologies, but, because of its slow start, many doubt that it will ever rise to challenge 3G. Although WiMax has the support of Intel Corp., Alvarion Ltd. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., "realistically, if we see wide-scale adoption of the mobile stuff, I would be very impressed," says Roger Marks, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who chairs the IEEE 802.16 working group on broadband wireless access. For now, WiMax's most practical application is to deliver broadband to large swaths of remote geographic areas where wires and 3G services are too expensive.
Rather than building out a separate network, Phil Marshall, Yankee Group's vice president of wireless technology, expects the telecom companies to eventually offer WiMax as a complement to 3G. "It would cost between $2 billion and $3 billion to build out a nationwide WiMax network, and there's just no demand to justify that," he says. Marshall says 3G will eventually have ubiquitous coverage, and WiMax will be available in metropolitan areas where the demand for rich mobile media such as video will be significant.
Don't count mobile WiMax out completely, though. In South Korea, which already enjoys a cellular network that analysts say is several years ahead of the U.S., plans are under way to launch an extensive, nationwide mobile broadband network based on 802.16e technology, called WiBro (wireless broadband), early next year. Meanwhile, Japan is considering WiBro as a national standard for its high-speed mobile data network. Some analysts say that as voice services increasingly move to IP, U.S. telecom companies will be forced to consider WiMax—in fact, Sprint Nextel has already announced plans to test WiMax. Chris Knudsen, CTO at Intel's broadband wireless division, says other telecoms will follow. "Because WiMax is an open standard, it will allow for a much more rapid propagation across the industry," he says. "It will only be natural for the carriers to run trials with it."
Meanwhile, a few companies are turning to satellite broadband services, offered by providers such as WildBlue Communications Inc., Telesat Canada and SkyPort International Inc. Data transfer rates range from 200 Kbps to 1 Mbps, but the problem is that satellite "has some line-of-sight issues, building penetration isn't great, and it's very expensive," says Forrester's Daley.
A single setup can cost $500 per connection, not including monthly fees, which can run upwards of $450. "For those reasons, many companies don't consider it unless it's absolutely necessary," she adds. Most companies that do use satellite only deploy it to fill in gaps where other wireless technologies aren't yet available, mainly in the central U.S. and northern Canada.
And even far-flung organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Arlington, Va.-based global nonprofit ecological conservation organization, which runs 450 offices in 28 countries, would opt for 3G and WiMax over satellite if they were available. "Satellite has limitations," says Jean-Louis Ecochard, vice president and CIO of the Nature Conservancy. "First, you need a license from the government, and that's not always easy. Next, the satellite connection only arrives in one place, and you can't distribute it. There is significant lag time, so it's hard to carry voice. And it's expensive."
Still, for companies operating in remote locations, satellite is the only game in town until WiMax and 3G services slowly become more widely available. As usual, the problem isn't the technology—it's the people, or in this case, the companies competing for market share. "There are still a lot of turf wars going on," says Yankee's Signorini, "and it's going to take some time to get there."
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