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WiMAX: What it means & how it works

Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or WiMAX, is a new communications technology that takes us past traditional land-based access (DSL, cable, T-1) and into the growing world of wireless. Andy Abramson of VOIP Watch lets you in on the secrets and specs for this exciting new standard.
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor
Hi, I'm Andy Abramson, Editor of VoIP Watch, and today we're going to talk all about WiMAX, what it means and how it works. By definition, WiMAX stands for the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. I guess we have to put an X over here at the end to make it polite.

So anyway, what is WiMAX? Well for starters, it's a standards-based alternative to DSL, cable and T1 lines. Let's go to our famous friend, the infamous internet cloud. We'll just abbreviate it and call it INT. Coming out of the internet, you have three traditional means of high-speed access: cable, DSL and of course the T1 line. Each of these bring with it challenges and limitations. The T1 line obviously is price, $600 or so usually here in the US. For DSL the challenge is distance. If you go past about 17,000 to 18,000 feet, you won't even get DSL but your speeds really fall off at about 9 or 10,000 feet . Cross them off. And of course cable, first the cable company has to have a franchise and secondly they have to offer you high speed internet access where the cable goes.

Now, let's talk about WiMAX and how it overcomes these limitations. First you're going to have a WiMAX tower. The WiMAX tower is going to exist in multiple locations around the community or out in the countryside. That tower is going to transmit and receive signals that are WiMAX oriented. Where are they going to go? They're going to go to transceivers. Those transceivers, think of them like DSL or cable modems, receive and send WiMAX signals back and forth to the towers. Those are connected to other devices, end points like computers, WiFi equipment, or anything that can receive an Ethernet connection, like a router.

But also what's great about WiMAX is a standard called mobile WiMAX will be coming into existence. For mobile WiMAX, people on the go will be able to also access that same network of antenna towers that are all put together in a mesh format. As a matter of fact, that's what makes WiMAX so great. It fills in the gaps that you currently have that either the limitations of DSL or cable impose, the costs of T1's or the fact that cell towers can't be everywhere simply because of population concentration. That's what makes WiMAX so easy and a way to get people connected.

So what does all this mean and who's it going to benefit? Let's go back and visit with our friend, the cloud, only this time it's going to be the WiMAX cloud. With WiMAX we create ubiquitous access. We're going to spell that out. U-B-I-Q-U-I-T-O-U-S, ubiquitous, basically meaning it goes everywhere and for everyone. What does that mean? It means that some of the same applications that ride over the high speed internet, over cable, DSL or T1 can now reach everyone. I'm talking about high speed data, video, voice, and streaming media.

By providing these four high speed intensive applications and services, WiMAX makes it easy to overcome something that troubles a lot of nations and communities around the world. What is that? It's called the digital divide. The digital divide affects nations and communities. How? They don't have high-speed internet. That puts them at a disadvantage. That means they don't have data, video, voice and streaming which they need in order to compete around the world. This can be a country in Africa or it could be a community here in the United States. The digital divide like IP knows no boundaries.

So, is WiMAX just around the corner? Not quite. You still have standards to be finalized; they're not done yet. You deployments to be made; they're just starting around the world. You've got some hardware limitations, both price and availability, but most of all there aren't any customers really using it in any mass form to make sure that WiMAX is really going to work. Those challenges, though, like everything else with technology, will be overcome.

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