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Tech Watch: Where's WiMax?

Rollout of the wireless technology is slower than some folks expected, but VARs still hope it can bolster anytime-anywhere broadband access.

The hunger for anytime-anywhere broadband access seems insatiable, but the availability of WiMax and other fourth-generation wireless services -- in the United States at least -- has so far failed to sate that appetite.

Current projections from carrier Clearwire call for WiMax, a.k.a. Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, to be available to approximately 120 million Americans in 80 markets by the end of 2010.

The dominant domestic WiMax provider, Clearwire's strategic investors include Intel Capital, Comcast, Sprint, Google, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Clear 4G WiMax rollouts this year include Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Seattle. On deck for 2010 are Boston, Houston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Top-tier notebook vendors that have committed to WiMax in some of their products include Acer, ASUS, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba America Information Systems.

Richard Harber, president of Atlanta-based solution provider Decision Digital Inc., said he believes WiMax and other 4G services will help clients who need a secondary Internet connection for redundancy. "Previously, our options were limited as to what we could use," Harber said.

That said, Harber said business adoption of the Clearwire service in Atlanta has been slow, despite the fact that the company has blanketed the city with consumer sales offers. That's because some of the access speed promises have failed to materialize.

"It seems to be on a par with DSL or cable. It's really not that much faster," Harber said.

According to Clearwire's marketing materials, 4G WiMax is up to four times faster than current 3G services, depending on the carrier. Technically speaking, the specification strives for speeds 100 megabits per 1 gigabit per second.

Many of Decision Digital's corporate customers are holding out for other WiMax service options because they believe smaller regional buildouts may deliver better bandwidth at more reasonable prices.

Dave Casey, president of network integrator Westron Communications Inc. in Carrolton, Texas, said another gating factor is that while Sprint backs WiMax, other wireless carriers including AT&T and Verizon are pushing another standard called LTE (Long Term Evolution) that is in essence a bridge between 3G and 4G services. One factor boosting the need for more bandwidth is the increasing use of Internet video by businesses as a marketing strategy. Carriers are also trying to reduce the strain on their voice networks, Casey said.

Why WiMax adoption lags

Brian Gregory, president of Network Innovations Inc., a networking solution provider in Olathe, Kansas, said he is eager to see WiMax services emerge in his region because many areas still don't have viable options for broadband and high-speed network access. The rollout has been slower than expected, he said.

Darryl Branson, a wireless Internet services consultant based in St. Louis, said one factor that could affect WiMax adoption is the buildout of community-based services by municipalities seeking to provide residents with Internet service.

Many of these communities are considering WiMax as an alternative to Wi-Fi networks. The challenge is that while WiMax is more robust, the upfront cost of the transmission equipment is significantly higher. Wi-Fi networks can be built out over time as adoption grows.

Another factor that could potentially accelerate near-term adoption of WiMax is the build out of the smart grid, at least that's the hope of Grid Net, a company that's created a platform called PolicyNet, which enables utilities to use WiMax as a networking option for smart meters.

SP AusNet, a large utility in Australia, recently became the first utility to embrace PolicyNet for its advanced metering infrastructure. General Electric is one major player that already has committed to supporting WiMax with a smart meter design, a smart grid router and related home area networking technology. Other companies that are emerging as WiMax proponents include Cisco Systems, Motorola and Oracle.

Ray Bell, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Grid Net, said advantages of WiMax over other wide area wireless networking options being considered for the smart grid include the security and reliability provided by government-licensed spectrum; a high quality of service; the fact that it was designed for IP networking and not voice applications; and its interoperability with other networking standards.

"This is wireless broadband to the masses. Not only can some of these smart meters handle grid applications, they can be a giant Ethernet switch. [Some smart meters] can double and provide Internet service using WiMax," Bell said.

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