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Is 'Wi-Fi on steroids' really the next big thing?

Some see WiMAX growing quickly; others say use years away

By Marsha Walton

With WiMAX, people in locations where broadband was previously unavailable will be able to ditch their old analog modems for an antenna and receiver.



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(CNN) -- Computer users in many urban and university areas have come to expect connectivity 24/7. There's a cable modem or DSL at home, a high-speed connection in the office and Wi-Fi for the places in between, from the commute to the coffeehouse.

But many long-frustrated suburban and rural dwellers have no choice but to listen to the sound of a dial-up modem handshake, with accompanying slow connections and downloads. Their homes or businesses are in areas that are too costly for telephone and cable companies to wire.

WiMAX, a wireless broadband technology sometimes known as "Wi-Fi on steroids," could provide relief soon, some experts say, although others see many years ahead before the long-touted technology gains widespread use.

"WiMAX is an interesting kind of compromise between cellular and Wi-Fi coverage," said Scott Shamp, director of the University of Georgia's New Media Institute.

"It gives you high data speeds like Wi-Fi but covers a much bigger geographic area like cellular coverage," said Shamp, who helped create one of the earliest Wi-Fi hot spots, covering parts of the University of Georgia campus and the city of Athens, Georgia.

WiMAX, shorthand for World Interoperability for Microwave Access, is a standard for the technology that can deliver wireless broadband services. Its aim is to combine the speed and security of a broadband connection but with the lower cost and convenience of having no wired infrastructure that's needed for cable modems or DSL connections.

WiMAX technology may make a huge difference in less developed areas of the world -- providing a cheaper alternative to costly and bulky infrastructure for hard-to-reach places.

"Certainly in markets like Indonesia, India, Africa and some parts of Latin America, where wired infrastructure is poor, WiMAX provides a huge opportunity. There already is demand," said Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

Europe has jumped into the world of wireless broadband with HiperMAN, while South Korea has developed WiBro. Both are designed to be compatible with WiMAX technology.

Standardization is critical so that the many products and applications being developed for WiMAX will work together. The first type of WiMAX system -- for fixed applications such as connecting from a business or home -- was approved 2004 by the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The IEEE approved the next version of the standard, for mobile services in December 2005.

A WiMAX system -- which can be fixed for homes and businesses or mobile for devices -- has two parts: a tower similar to a cell phone tower and a receiver. The receiver could be in the form of a small box, about the size of a modem, or, as is already being developed, a card that can be built into a laptop the same way a Wi-Fi card is in most computers today.

The consumer possibilities of devices using WiMAX could bring a gleam to any gadget guru's eye: streaming video, even high-definition television on cell phones, or in cars; multiplayer gaming on a handheld device; and of course, other information and entertainment yet to be invented.

The WiMAX timetable

Golvin said that while WiMAX will have a big global impact on consumers, vendors and telecom operators by making high-speed wireless more available, it won't happen until 2010 or later in places that have long had access to broadband connections.

"In developed economies, where cable and DSL infrastructure is reliable, where there are lots of subscribers and it is widely deployed, WiMAX does not have a great advantage," Golvin said.

But some WiMAX developers see other business possibilities occurring sooner, such as setting up wireless broadband for entire communities.

Intel is one of the companies pushing WiMAX technology and has invested heavily in its development.

"What if you want to wire an entire city? Even in a mountainous terrain like Mexico City, you could put up a tower that could reach 50 to 70 miles," said Eliot Weinman, conference chair of WiMAX World Conference & Expo.

Connectivity that covers a whole metropolitan area could help cities woo both residents and businesses, with the promise of being "always connected."

Weinman said there are already nearly 400 companies backing the WiMAX technology, for everything from improved communication for police, fire and other rescue vehicles to improved entertainment and information for mobile devices.

Computer chip maker Intel is playing a big part in pushing WiMAX as the next thing in connectivity, just as it did in driving the Wi-Fi standard. Intel's Centrino laptop processors are expected to be WiMAX-enabled in the next two years.

Amid this activity, that cutting-edge group of tech enthusiasts known as "early adopters" has begun to see portable devices as more than just mobile phones -- in reality small computers.

"More people are getting used to getting their news, sports, weather, music and video on that device, and with that will be more demand for faster networks," Golvin said.

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