Businesses stretching Wi-Fi's capabilities on distance and speed would be advised to consider adopting WiMax - the newer, faster, long-distance broadband internet standard. Sally Flood reports
When residents of the Winslade Estate in Lewisham, South London, go online, rather than using a dial-up or ADSL connection, they use a Wi-Fi network provided by the local council. The £250,000 network was set up in 2003 using funding from the government's New Deal for Communities programme. Today, more than 500 residents enjoy free, high-speed internet access, thanks to the Wi-Fi system.
"We knew that the finance was not enough to cable the entire estate, and we could not go back a year later for more money to dig in more cables," says Nigel Tyrell, project leader of Winslade Online. "With Wi-Fi, we can potentially expand the network very quickly for little additional cost."
However, some wireless experts believe that the days of using Wi-Fi for this type of project are numbered.
"People have been stretching what they are doing with Wi-Fi, taking it far beyond what it was intended to do," says Peter Firstbrook, a programme director with analyst firm Meta Group. "For example, Wi-Fi was never really designed to be used outside, or to be used to cover large physical areas."
Because Wi-Fi is a low-power technology, it works best over short distances and indoors, where echoes and obstacles are less of an issue, says Simon Saunders, chief executive of wireless consulting group CDS. In addition, Wi-Fi does not offer any interference protection, and enterprises cannot guarantee the level of service provided by a Wi-Fi network when lots of people are using the same frequency.
However, there will soon be an alternative for enterprises that could overcome many of these problems. WiMax is a new wireless broadband technology that promises high-speed internet access (up to 70mbps) over distances of up to 30 kilometres. The WiMax Forum (the industry association responsible for defining WiMax standards) is gaining strong support from organisations such as Intel, Fujitsu, Siemens and Motorola.
WiMax also has some powerful advantages over Wi-Fi for enterprises, says Caroline Gabriel, research director at Rethink IT. "The security and quality of service are far more advanced in WiMax, whereas Wi-Fi needs a host of extensions to handle these issues," she says. "WiMax will support Advanced Encryption System from day one and has native support for quality of service, making it a strong contender for voice and video over IP and for mesh, which is good for campus coverage."
Saunders also believes that WiMax is much better suited to providing broadband access over long distances and open spaces. "Wi-Fi will always be a local network technology, but WiMax is designed specifically for metro networks," he says.
Strictly speaking, WiMax is not a new technology. For almost a decade companies such as broadband technology supplier Alvarion have used proprietary broadband wireless access (BWA) technology to transmit digital traffic without wires. What is different now is that companies such as Intel and Fujitsu are working together to set standards for BWA products. These standards will create a new generation of WiMax-compatible products that should ensure interoperability, increase customer choice and reduce prices.
WiMax products will arrive in waves as different standards are agreed. The first WiMax services will be based on the 802.16-2004 standard, which will cover fixed WiMax services. Fixed WiMax sets a common method for fixed wireless services products designed to beam an internet signal from a base station to a building or area.
Relatively few enterprises will buy into fixed WiMax services, because they will be too expensive, says Firstbrook. The exception could be where companies want to replace expensive point-to-point links such as Free Space Optics, which might be used to link two buildings on different sides of a river or other physical barrier.
Instead, most fixed WiMax customers will be carriers and telecom service providers, which will buy WiMax to flood a particular area with broadband, then offer access to business and home users in return for a monthly fee. "The big market opportunity is WiMax as an alternative to DSL and cable, particularly in rural and suburban areas," says Firstbrook. "We should start seeing WiMax services by the end of 2005 with more arriving in 2006."
Some services of this type are already running in the UK using uncertified, pre-WiMax technology. Start-up company Libera is offering business customers in central Bristol access to a 2mbps wireless broadband service for £299 a month, plus £499 installation. The service is aimed at medium-sized companies which need better reliability and speed than ADSL but cannot afford a leased line, says Libera's chief executive, Robert Condon.
"This system is capable of delivering up to 10mbps access for customers, and we offer performance guarantees of 2mbps," he says. "At the moment, if a business wants that, they have to double up their lines or buy a leased line, which can cost £1,000 a month."
A second wave of WiMax products is expected in 2006 or 2007, based on a second WiMax standard that should be ratified this summer. The 802.16e standard will define common standards for chip sets for use in laptops and other mobile devices. Leading the way is chip firm Intel, which has released a test version of its WiMax-compatible chip, Rosedale, to selected suppliers.
"When that chip is released, you will suddenly have millions of users able to use WiMax networks, and that will drive the creation of WiMax services," says Carlton O'Neil, marketing director of Alvarion. "WiMax access cards for laptops will be available pretty quickly after that, certainly within 18 months or two years."
Mobile WiMax will allow service providers to create large metropolitan wireless networks that will outperform Wi-Fi hotspots. "Wi-Fi can technically offer a service over a distance of 300 feet but that is only if you are standing on level ground, with the sun shining and the wind blowing in the right direction," says O'Neil. "With WiMax, you can realistically expect to cover five or 10 kilometres with a single base station which, in many cases, is an entire town."
Authorities in New York and Philadelphia in the US have recently created mesh Wi-Fi networks that link together hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots to provide coverage across an entire city. This type of service will eventually be replaced with WiMax networks that users can access on the move, says Firstbrook.
But, like many wireless technologies before it, WiMax has several obstacles to overcome. First among these is price. Today, receivers and base stations for WiMax networks cost about 10 times more than their Wi-Fi equivalents.
In addition, WiMax in the UK does not yet guarantee protection from interference. "Ofcom has made the 5.8Ghz spectrum available for WiMax access, but it is not protected," says Saunders. "Also, at that frequency, the signal from a WiMax base station will not necessarily be able to penetrate buildings, so companies will need external antennas, which will bump up the price of services."
And there are still some WiMax sceptics. Cisco Systems, for example, recently released a statement saying it had no plans to support WiMax because the company believes that "Wi-Fi is the fastest, most cost-effective and most tested technology for the marketplace."
So what does this mean for 3G services? In the short-term, probably not much, says Firstbrook. Although a service provider might be able to offer voice and data over WiMax in a given area, the ability to roam between different WiMax zones is more complicated. "It took the mobile operators years to sort out roaming for mobile phones, and it will take years to achieve the same with WiMax," Firstbrook says.
Some analysts believe that in future, WiMax may compete with 3G services. "The real breakthrough will come when there is full mobility, from about 2007 or 2008," says Gabriel. "We will start to see WiMax handsets with full hand-off between base-stations, enabling new enterprise applications at low cost, such as mobile videoconferencing and other video over IP functions. This should be delivered with far better price-performance than on 3G or 3.5G," she says.
Ultimately, it is likely that IT directors will need to factor both Wi-Fi and WiMax into their internet access strategies, along with 3G and wired technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet for the desktop. This presents IT managers with a potential management nightmare, but Firstbrook believes that suppliers are beginning to address the issue.
"Some suppliers such as IBM are beginning to look at connection managers that will automatically select the right access technology, depending on where the user is and what they are doing," he says. "We will start to see new products that will ensure we are always connected, no matter where we go."
Case study: Upton Magna Business Park
Upton Magna Business Park looks like a haven for those wishing to set up a business outside the city. The site is surrounded by the rolling countryside of Shrewsbury and has space for 14 businesses in converted agricultural buildings.
However, in the past the park has had problems attracting tenants because it does not have access to ADSL broadband services. As a result, businesses had to use dial-up or ISDN, which were not ideal.
Upton Magna was approached by Internet Central, an independent internet service provider with a potential solution. It already operated a number of broadband wireless access (BWA) networks in non-DSL areas in the UK, and offered to create a similar network for the business park.
Because BWA does not rely on the copper infrastructure of the incumbent operator and does not require fibre to be laid, it is relatively inexpensive, says Dave Thorpe, operations manager at Internet Central. "Fixed wireless is a good alternative to ADSL because it is faster to install and customers can choose a tailored access package depending on how much bandwidth they need," he says.
Another attraction was that the network can easily be expanded or upgraded as Upton Magna grows. Once the wireless network is in place, new customers can be connected in a couple of hours and most new features can be added with a software download.
Internet Central created a BWA network using a base station from Alvarion, which is installed at the ISP's head office in Stafford. The base station communicates with the access point at the business park. The network provides tenants with internet access of about 1mbps - 20 times faster than a traditional dial-up connection.
The hardware used to create the network uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) technology, which is the basis of the upcoming Wi-Max standard, so it should be relatively straightforward to upgrade once the standard has been defined.
A type of local area network where each transmitter or receiver is connected to others to create a larger pool of coverage
A metropolitian area netwrok connects users over larger areas than would be covered by a Lan but covers a smaller area network. Metro networks are often used to connect entire cities or large campus sites
Short for wireless fidelity, Wi-Fi is a type of wireless Lan that uses the 802.11 wireless networking standard. Wi-Fi is designed to be used over short distances, for example, in offices and schools. Public access Wi-Fi networks are known as hotspots
A wireless broadband technology that uses the 802.16 networking standard. WiMax networks will have a range of up to 30 miles and support multimedia applications
This was first published in March 2005