WiMax: The Future of Wireless, Still Years Away

The future for WiMax technology in the enterprise is, well, not now.

Despite some hefty investments and even heftier plans among wireless infrastructure providers, serious adoption of WiMax by American businesses is several years away, and even widespread consumer applications are a couple of years off. But that’s not stopping everyone from telecommunications firms to automakers to dream about what might be.

WiMax–or as it is rarely called, the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access–is an emerging alternative to Wi-Fi that offers a few key advantages. Not only do WiMax transmitters deliver a wireless signal for several miles, compared with the 100-to-300-foot range of most Wi-Fi transmitters; WiMax features superior authentication and encryption schemes to WiFi, making it harder for hackers to spoof the identities of users.

While that security is seen as a potentially major attraction for corporate users, the technology is in far too early a stage in its development for most companies to consider it seriously. “We’re years away from seeing WiMax in devices, and we’re years away from seeing sufficient network coverage,” says Phil Redman, an analyst at IT advisors Gartner. He points out that it took at least 10 years for cellular technology to become widespread, and that it’s likely to take that long for WiMax to take hold.

The biggest potential in the corporate market over the next five years is for simple connectivity. By replacing the so-called “last mile” of their wired voice and data networks with campus-wide WiMax transmitters that communicate directly with wireless-enabled PCs and mobile devices, companies could, in theory, make wall jacks and local network closets unnecessary. Establishing high-speed connectivity in new offices, factories and stores would be simpler than ever. The primary obstacle to making this happen today is cost, but that issue is expected to correct itself as the technology matures and equipment prices drop.

In the meantime, don’t think the numerous obstacles to WiMax adoption means the technology isn’t making progress today. It’s certainly a point of focus in the telecom world, where Sprint had invested boatloads of money to build out a WiMax network even before it acquired Clearwire and its budding WiMax network earlier this year. The combined company is the nation’s biggest owner of wireless spectrum, portending a huge WiMax rollout over the next several years.

Elsewhere, Clemson University’s Center for Research in Wireless Communications has been working with researchers at automaker BMW to determine the implications that various broadband technologies–WiMax among them–have for delivering services to car owners. “If they can provide very rich information to their customers, and then customers can provide rich information back, you can have an economical solution for keeping your customers in the loop,” says K.C. Wang, a faculty member at the center and an associate professor in Clemson’s electrical and computer engineering department.

The center also has been working with the U.S. Department of Justice and local police departments on ways WiMax can contribute to public safety, but Wang declined to provide any details.

With Intel planning to ship WiMax-embedded chipsets for laptops in the next 18 months, it’s only a matter of time before we can expect to see WiMax-enabled chipsets embedded in all sorts of products that should bring benefits to businesses and consumers alike.

Picture a washing machine that can tap a citywide WiMax network to communicate with its manufacturer about a malfunction, allowing a technician to arrive on site ready to tackle the problem, no diagnosis necessary. Imagine delivery trucks with on-board WiMax transmitters, letting shipping companies to better track their fleets in real time. And consider the potential of applying WiMax to radio frequency identification technology, making it possible for product tags to be scanned by WiMax-enabled RFID readers miles away.

Even if business is slower than expected to adopt WiMax, legions of mobile workers can look forward to more pervasive connectivity when they’re working from remote locations. But it’s going to take time before any such benefits are real.

“This is a promise market, it’s future potential,” says WiMax propoent Tim Sanders, president of broadband consulting firm The Final Mile. “This is where we’re at.”

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