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Wireless broadband... real or hype?

There were some news articles yesterday about Craig McGraw (of cellular telephone fame.)  He's investing in a company that plans to roll out service using the "WiMax" wireless broadband technology.  (Technically, the IEEE 802.16 standard.)  Details:

On paper, this technology sounds almost too good to be true:
*  Provides wireless internet connections up to 50 kilometers away from the hotspot.  (~30 miles.)
*  Provides bandwidth of 280 Mbps per base station.
*  Doesn't require a line-of-sight connection to the base station.  (Unlike previous wireless broadband offerings.)

If this pans out, it could compete with cable/DSL for connections at home, and also provide great mobile coverage -- like the old Ricochet wireless service (R.I.P.)  No need to pay T-Mobile $30/month just to use WiFi at Starbucks, or pay for expensive and slow wireless connections over cell phone networks.

Any thoughts about whether this technology is realistic and what it will mean for end-users?  I'm personally curious about how the service plans will shake out, and whether this will be a major drain on notebook battery life.

Also, is there any hope for a D-Link home router (or equivalent) based on 802.16, or is this strictly a technology that the telcos can afford to roll out?  If I could have a router at home sharing my broadband connection over a 20 mile radius, that would be very cool (and very dangerous economically for the telcos.)

Robert Jacobson
Friday, June 4, 2004

Bah... found one article concluding that it's "years away" from reality:

Robert Jacobson
Friday, June 4, 2004

It is currently being used here in New Zealand, mainly in the rural areas. Will track down some more info.

Friday, June 4, 2004

I work for a French Telecom Operator and I can tell you management take Wifi and WifiMax very seriously as (future) competitive threats.  Specially against UMTS (3G network).

Friday, June 4, 2004

It is being used in Penrith (50KM from Sydney, AU - not really rural). The company that is doing it here was just using normal old Wireless access points on 802.11, last time I looked into it about a year ago before we could get ADSL, it was nearly $300/month for 1GB downloads at 4mbps and I am not sure they are still running it as I haven't seen it advertised for a while.

But all the McDonalds in Sydney now have wireless access, so it sure isn't hype, just wether it is worth considering if you have other broadband options is another matter.

Chris Ormerod
Friday, June 4, 2004

If you do the arithmetic on 280 Mbps bandwidth per base station, a 50 km radius coverage area, and assume (say) a 100 m pitch between subscribers, you end up with a sustained rate heading towards 35 bytes per second. You'd better hope that the take up is really poor.

And if I remember rightly, that 280 Mbps is both way traffic, and would of course include handshaking and other protocol overhead. And then (I think) that dealing with multi-path reflections is still not perfect: it doesn't _have_ to be line of sight, but it sure works better the fewer obstacles in the way.

Time will tell, but they probably need to do some social engineering (or economic engineering) to make sure the uptake is relatively poor, otherwise you'll get the cable-hog syndrome

bah humbug
Friday, June 4, 2004

A coworker is using it from Nextel, here in the Raleigh-Durham area.  He gets up to  1mbit/sec, depending on where he is.  At the office, about 550kbit/sec.  Ground floor of his house, about 185kbit/sec.  Top floor of his house is where he gets 1mbit/sec (apparently he lives behind a hill).  From what I've read, it's using 4G OFDM encoding for speeds of 1.5mbit/sec, bursting to 3.0mbit/sec.

The hardware is a PCCard with an external antenna that velcros to the lid of his laptop.  He can also plug the antenna directly into the card, but then it interferes with his typing.

Cost is around $50 per month, on top of his cellular service (pretty competitve with broadband, IOW).  This may be being subsidized by the equipment providers, as the service is still somewhat in the trial stages.

Read more at:

Saturday, June 5, 2004

Chris, there have been some U.S. cities that have experimented with regular WiFi (802.11b) technology for blanket broadband coverage.  The latest one is Chaska, Minnesota, which is attempting to provide universal wireless broadband coverage for all of its residents:

The problem is that the range for WiFi is so limited -- usually just a few hundred feet.  You'd need a WiFi access point almost on the top of every lamppost to have blanket coverage.  The benefit of the WiMAX/802.11g spec is that you could do the same with just a few access points scattered across the city.  (Although, as Bah Humbug notes, the 280 Mbps would get saturated rather quickly.)

Blank, thanks for the info about the Nextell broadband.  It's not using WiMAX, but it sounds like a compelling alternative.  It's priced right, and sounds much better than other cell phone companies' wireless data plans.

Robert Jacobson
Saturday, June 5, 2004

About 5 or 10 years ago, back when I was a telecom consulting engineer, there was a lot of talk about WIRELESS CABLE TV, called LMDS and MMDS.

That's pretty high bandwidth (in the broadcast direction, anyway). Figure about 50 channels and maybe 5 Mhz per channel. That's ROUGHLY about 500 Mbits/second.  (As I recall you get about 2 bits/ second per 1 hz of bandwidth).

So.. the technology and spectrum exists to do such thing. It's viable from a physics standpoint, at least in terms of transmitting TO the customer.


Mr. Analogy
Saturday, June 5, 2004

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