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The What, Where, and Why of WiMAX

The introduction of the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) certification for licensed and licensed-exempt microwave equipment will expand the broadband wireless market through decreased costs and will improve enterprise and service-provider awareness. META Trend: User access diversity will increase as mobile users migrate from dial-up to broadband, wireless LAN hot spots, and ad hoc wired connections (e.
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Written by Chris Kozup on

The introduction of the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) certification for licensed and licensed-exempt microwave equipment will expand the broadband wireless market through decreased costs and will improve enterprise and service-provider awareness.

META Trend: User access diversity will increase as mobile users migrate from dial-up to broadband, wireless LAN hot spots, and ad hoc wired connections (e.g., hotel Ethernet) during 2003/04, as well as 2.5G/3G cellular data services (Europe and Asia 2004, US 2005/06). User authentication and SSL VPN adoption will accelerate, becoming the dominant application-based remote access mechanism by 2005, with IPSec devices securing network interconnections. Best-practice organizations will focus efforts on standardized remote access usage policies, user profiles, and formalized identity management processes.

An efficient and cost-effective wireless alternative for high-speed network access has long been an elusive goal. The worldwide equipment market for fixed broadband wireless remains relatively small, with industry revenue estimates ranging from $430 million to $560 million in 2003. Enterprise adoption has been limited by a lack of understanding of the benefits of microwave technology and high deployment costs. Although service-provider usage for backhaul applications has increased over time, high product and operational costs, coupled with limited interoperability, have stunted the growth of fixed broadband wireless in local-loop and last-mile applications. However, interest in an alternative method of reaching businesses and consumers remains strong.

One such alternative in the terrestrial wireless arena is WiMAX technology, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 series of standards for broadband wireless. The WiMAX Forum was formed to increase public awareness of the broadband wireless potential and accelerate adoption by driving vendor interoperability. In the same way that the Wi-Fi Alliance spawned the growth of 802.11, WiMAX is poised to become the industry standard for IEEE 802.16-based broadband wireless equipment. Although WiMAX does not create a new market (broadband wireless currently exists in various forms), it enables the standardization of technology required for the volume economics that reduce costs and enable broader market growth. In the short term (2004), the WiMAX Forum is developing certification procedures for eventual testing of products by year’s end. By 2005, major vendors will release WiMAX-certified products, with the majority being in the sub-11GHz frequencies. Longer term, WiMAX will evolve to support last-mile, backhaul, and private enterprise applications. By 2006/07, WiMAX will emerge as an embedded solution into notebooks for direct client distribution, delivering true portable wireless broadband without external client premises equipment (CPE).

The What of WiMAX. Although the IEEE 802.16 and subsequent revisions to the 802.16 standard are intended to provide Layer 1 and 2 interoperability for broadband wireless solutions, the IEEE does not ensure compliance to the standard or end-to-end interoperability between products. To address this gap, “WiMAX-Certified” will be the brand given to all IEEE 802.16 products that have been certified compliant by the WiMAX Forum. The IEEE 802.16 standards span frequencies from 2GHz up to 66GHz and allow for much flexibility in the type of physical layer interfacing into the IEEE 802.16 Media Access Controller. This variability in physical layers will enable a multitude of applications across enterprise and service-provider environments. WiMAX will create a select number of application profiles in an effort to characterize best-use cases and limit the number of variations that exist within the market. Both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint deployments can operate in either the licensed or licensed-exempt frequencies, depending on the service-level requirements of the user. The principal emphasis of WiMAX is in point-to-multipoint deployments, though it will be deployed in many point-to-point applications such as private enterprise use and cellular backhaul. In these scenarios, orthogonal frequency division multiplexing modulation can be used to provide non-line-of-site (NLOS) connectivity between base stations and premises equipment. Across both scenarios, WiMAX will span distances of up to 30 miles, with shared data rates approaching 70 Mbps in a 20MHz channel (see Figure 1). NLOS performance is greater at lower frequency bands at close proximity to the subscriber base station. At the maximum 30-mile distance, one would expect line-of-sight performance only. A typical cell radius for NLOS fixed broadband wireless service would be three to five miles, depending on the frequency band.

The Where of WiMAX. While specific use profiles continue to be defined, the following usage scenarios are recognized as deriving the greatest benefit from standards-based broadband wireless solutions (see Figure 2):

  • Private enterprise: WiMAX and incumbent fixed wireless solutions can be used to bridge together multiple enterprise sites within a metropolitan area, avoiding or lowering carrier circuit changes and expensive private fiber installations by serving as the main or redundant link. As WiMAX and Wi-Fi become integrated into a single access point, enterprises can use WiMAX as the backhaul link to provide network connectivity in remote buildings or ad hoc office locations. This scenario is particularly applicable to organizations requiring network access in locations without pre-existing infrastructure (e.g., construction, emergency services, oil and gas industries).
  • Backhaul: Service providers have been the most likely to leverage point-to-point microwave solutions (e.g., LMDS) for backhauling data and voice traffic from cellular towers or other mobile data infrastructure. The advent of WiMAX will enable service providers to decrease the cost of traffic backhaul and could effectively lessen the time for service provisioning and for changing service levels to new and existing locations. Traditional carrier wireless backhaul usage centers on cellular service extension, but WiMAX also has a place in the rapid deployment of Wi-Fi services. Similar to the enterprise application for integrated Wi-Fi and WiMAX, public hot-spot providers will ultimately benefit from WiMAX integration into Wi-Fi access points to allow them to turn up hot spots without requiring fixed DSL or T1 access into every location.
  • Broadband wireless Internet services: Another application for WiMAX lies in Internet service delivery to consumer and small-and-medium-business locations. Such services have had limited success to date due to the high cost of the CPE and cell tower equipment, as well as the cost of provisioning service (e.g., truck rolls). WiMAX promises to decrease equipment costs; however, it can do relatively little to ease the cost of provisioning the service in the short term because CPE will still be a prerequisite. Given the low cost of incumbent fixed broadband services (US DSL and cable prices are as low as $26.95 per month and are even lower in other countries), WiMAX as a home broadband access technology will have the best chance of success in rural and residential communities underserved by incumbent wired broadband options. WiMAX holds the promise of delivering 5x-10x higher data rates across longer distances than cable or DSL. Longer term (2007/08), as consumer demand for bandwidth increases, WiMAX could experience deployment growth as service providers seek to offer additional high-bandwidth services such as video on demand.
  • Portable broadband wireless: The final frontier for WiMAX is the integration into notebooks and other mobile devices. Intel has indicated it plans to integrate WiMAX directly into notebooks by 2006. Although WiMAX will not displace Wi-Fi (we believe in coexistence), embedded WiMAX will greatly increase the viability of broadband wireless services for portable users (both at home and on the road) by obviating the need for CPE. The adoption rate for carriers pursuing this model remains unclear, because many have already invested heavily in 3G technologies to serve this application, with limited uptake. There is also an alternative standard on the horizon addressing this market (802.20).
The Why of WiMAX. The motivation behind the WiMAX certification is to gain broader industry acceptance of broadband wireless access via reduced costs, higher performance, and more rapid innovation, and thus grow the market for both equipment manufacturers and service providers. Service providers and enterprises can expect interoperability between equipment vendors. Equipment vendors will be able to streamline product variances and decrease production costs. Ultimately, the advent of WiMAX will mean greater availability of network and Internet connectivity at home, in the office, and on the road.

Bottom Line: The emergence of WiMAX-certified products (2005) will lower the cost of deploying broadband wireless solutions. IT organizations should investigate WiMAX applications for lowering cost and increasing network availability.

Business Impact: Emerging wireless solutions have the potential to improve access to information across enterprise location and user type, thereby improving productivity and lowering cost.

META Group originally published this article on 6 May 2004.

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