With excitement building about WiMax, you might be surprised that, technically, no real WiMax products are available yet. That is, none that meet the 802.16 profile as defined by the WiMax Forum and certified compatible by the Forum's appointed lab in Spain.
But pre-standard gear is out there and demonstrable, with the Forum's July conference featuring demos from Nortel, Microsoft, Cisco, AT&T and others. What's more, there are said to be four or five important field trials of the high-speed, wide-area wireless technology under way around the world and certified products should ship by year-end.
Paul Sergeant, marketing director of Motorola's MOTOwi4 WiMax products for service providers, says WiMax will fill a few key roles: it will enable wireline service providers to offer broadband services in remote areas without having to build out wireline infrastructure; and, when the technology gains support for mobility in 2007 it will enable cell carriers to offer high-speed data services.
Mobility, Motorola believes, is the Holy Grail, so instead of building to the 802.16d WiMax spec, which only supports fixed point-to-point links, Motorola is building to the 802.16e revision that supports both fixed and mobile links. Equipment built to 802.16e is not compatible with 802.16d.
The 802.16e standard is expected to be finalized this month but it will take Motorola and other vendors many more months to tweak their products and ensure they are compliant. Customers that buy pre-standard gear will be able to upgrade with a fix delivered over the air.
The basic appeals of WiMax are performance and cost. The technology supports data speeds from 1M to 5Mbit/sec, depending on the distance to the wireless tower, with a peak of 20Mbit/sec. Compare that with cell technologies such as GPRS that support 114K bit/sec (more typically 20K to 30Kbit/sec) and EV-DO, which supports 2.4Mbit/sec (more typically 200K to 400Kbit/sec).
And it costs less than competing cell technologies because it requires far fewer network elements - they are built in to the basic WiMax device - and the shoe box-sized antennas can be mounted to existing poles or buildings.
Sergeant says Motorola will build mobile phones that support WiMax and possibly Wi-Fi. Intel, one of the earliest WiMax proponents, is building WiMax chips for use in laptops and other devices.
Could WiMax eventually supercede Wi-Fi? "If the costs came down enough WiMax could be a super-Wi-Fi," Sergeant says, but he doesn't really expect to see that.