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What WiMAX Means for the Enterprise

By Mark Whitton


A few weeks ago, Forbes published a list of the top 10 technologies destined to change the way we live. Fuel cells, gene therapy, and haptics, a technology that enables users to interact with virtual objects, were just a few of the innovations making the list, so was VoIP. Rounding out the top 10 Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, more commonly referred to as WiMAX an emerging wireless standard that has seen a meteoric rise in global interest, across every geographic region and among all industry players in only a few short years.

In spite of its high profile, a considerable amount of confusion persists. Questions abound as to how WiMAX will fit in the world of wireless communications. Will it replace WiFi? Will it compete with 3G cellular systems? What kinds of providers will offer it? This last question brings some interesting scenarios to mind looking ahead at the type of competitive landscape WiMAX could help create. That is certainly worth exploring, but lets stay focused here on the end user, considering primarily the implications of WiMAX for enterprise users and what IT managers need to do to prepare for this revolutionary technology.

Internet Everywhere
Blackberry and other PDA devices take a subset of enterprise applications like calendars, contact lists, e-mail, etc. and deliver them beyond the enterprises walls. Cellular phones long ago breached this barrier and now enable virtually all voice services through a network of public operators, and have thus blurred the line between office and personal communication services. WiMAX will take desktop computing and morph it into the mobile laptop and other devices yet to be introduced enabling the Internet to be virtually anywhere and the laptop to be truly mobile as the cell phone is today.

As mobile professionals and consumers begin to see their computers as personal, mobile, ever-present devices akin to cell phones, they will change their behavior and demands, similar to what happened with the cellular evolution. Laptops will become dual-duty office/personal devices, blending public and private data communication services. IT managers will need to prepare for this virtualization of the boundary around their networks a boundary that will soon be found inside their employees personal computing devices. Security, services, partnerships with infrastructure vendors and network operators, all will be impacted.

How WiMAX Works
WiMAX is designed to deliver broadband multimedia data ubiquitously over wireless links at several times the speed of traditional circuit-switched wireless systems, and over a far greater coverage area than todays proprietary wireless local network (WLAN) access solutions, such as 802.11 (WiFi) technology.

Where WiFi enables affordable broadband Internet access within short-range hot spots, at distances measured in tens of meters, WiMAX is designed to deliver the same access at similar costs, but across tens of kilometers and ultimately, with greater performance and higher speeds. In short, where WiFi provides high bandwidth but not distance, and current cellular systems provide distance, but not high bandwidth, WiMAX will provide both.

WiMAX will give users uninterrupted and untethered access to a rich variety of high-bandwidth services not only around offices, homes, coffee shops, airports, and hotels, but also as users roam in rural, suburban, and metropolitan areas.

Whats more, with WiMAX, users will no longer perceive wireless Internet access as being inferior in quality compared with todays fixed DSL and cable access offers. Instead, WiMAX is expected to bring long-sought-after performance parity between wireless and wired Internet access.

These capabilities are possible because the standard upon which WiMAX technology is based IEEE 802.16 is being designed from the ground up to be truly broadband and packet based. A non-line-of-sight technology, IEEE 802.16e (the e refers to the mobile version of the standard) is based on orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) and OFDM with multiple access (OFDMA), a new air interface that brings significantly improved levels of spectral efficiency, data throughput, and capacity compared to previous generations of radio technologies. Moreover, when combined with multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antenna processing technology, the resulting OFDM-MIMO combination can boost capacity and performance even further.

Will WiMAX Replace WiFi?
WiMAX and WiFi are somewhat independent, addressing slightly different needs. WiMAX uses private, licensed spectrum and provides WiFi-like service with guaranteed performance to larger public areas, similar in coverage to cellular networks today. WiFi uses shared spectrum and operates at short distances, making it ideal for low-cost, private networks (where usage of the network is constrained to an office building or campus) or free public systems (where service guarantees are not required).

Companies like Intel are committed to delivering dual-mode chipsets (WiFi + WiMAX) for next-generation devices. This would allow a user to access WiFi in the office, school, or home, and then roam onto a public WiMAX network after leaving the WiFi coverage area. WiMAX can also deliver the last-mile connection to a home or office where cable or DSL service doesnt reach.

Will WiMAX Have Any Performance Problems?
Early WLANs struggled with security and latency issues. WiMAX is being implemented based on WLAN lessons learned and will be equivalent to WLAN state-of-the-art security. And, WiMAX wont suffer from the same performance problems in cases where it is deployed in licensed spectrum (which is where the majority of it will be deployed), or in low-density rural areas using unlicensed spectrum. This is because a single network owner engineers and controls the usage and configuration of the network, avoiding the tragedy of commons scenario in public WiFi networks. At the same time, WiMAX will share WiFis most attractive attributes: ease of use, high-speed connections, and a wide variety of low-cost devices available through conventional outlets.

Will WiMAX Compete With Cellular Or 3G?
A lot of debate has centered around whether these two technologies will compete with or actually complement one another. The truth is, the answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. 3G is coming up from the voice world trying to do as much data/Internet functions as it can, but its stretched pretty far. Theres going to be a limit as to how much more broadband it can get. Also, the more broadband youre pulling, the bigger the screen has to be because theres a relationship between a devices size and how much bandwidth it requires. WiMAX makes more sense for laptops than handsets. On the other hand, WiMAX isnt designed for mobile voice. It will offer a better version of data than 3G, but it becomes challenging to offer voice with WiMAX when roaming.

Is WiMAX Currently Available?
The fixed 802.12-2004 standard is now available and well-suited for the last-mile-type access mentioned above where cable or DSL service cant be economically provisioned to a home or office. In North America alone, there is a significant rural market of under-served communities that fixed WiMAX can address.

The first of these 802.12-2004 networks will launch later this summer in Alberta, Canada. Once up and running, it will operate in the 3.5GHz spectrum band and be available to roughly 80 percent of SAB residents and businesses, equipping them with fixed broadband wireless access at data rates between one and three Mbps. It will also support services like e-mail, high-speed Internet access, multimedia applications including streaming video and music, VoIP and other real-time business collaboration services, in addition to video surveillance and remote telemetry.

Specifications for the mobile version of WiMAX, or 802.16-2005 (formerly e), were announced at the end of 2005. Expect to see trials this summer with commercial deployments in 2007. Korea will be a good place to watch in the coming months as the country becomes an early-mover with its own homegrown version of mobile WiMAX called WiBro, short for wireless broadband.

So, how does an enterprise prepare for WiMAX?
By 2008, WiMAX connectivity will be embedded in the base silicon of most new laptops alongside WiFi as a standard capability. Even before this, WiMAX will be enabled through laptop cards or dedicated devices with costs ranging from $100 to $500. The next two years give IT managers time to ready their networks, taking into account the security and mobility infrastructure needed to support a broad range of computing and communication devices that will inevitably access their systems and applications via multiple public and private networks. Now is the time to learn about the new capabilities WiMAX is expected to deliver and invest in a mobility infrastructure that will anchor WiMAX devices in the home network and create the service provider partnerships required to enable public roaming for employees and clients.

WiMAX Delivering A Truly Mobile, Internet Everywhere Lifestyle
WiMAX skeptics contend that the technology has a long way to go and isnt really necessary given the wireless networks already in place. No, WiMAX wont change things overnight or immediately have all of the capabilities that come with a technologys evolution and maturation. Getting to an Internet everywhere point will take time. The world experienced a similar evolution with cellular technology. The difference now expectations are higher. Weve already become so accustomed to being able to use our mobile phones at any moment, anywhere. Thats only been the norm for the past decade. The next phase is coming, maybe even faster. WiMAX will be everywhere. Figuratively speaking, it will leak through the walls. Think now about how it will impact the enterprise and, as Forbes predicts, change the way we live. IT

Mark Whitton is vice president and general manager, Nortel WiMAX Networks at Nortel. For more information, please visit the company online at (news - alerts).

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