On April 21-22, 2005, I attended the Broadband Wireless World Conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Broadband wireless has a painful past but a very promising future. It is another alternative to DSL and DOCSIS for delivering broad two-way digital connectivity to the home.
Demand for broadband wireless is higher in places that have old or nonexistent wired infrastructure, but there is hope that it will be adopted everywhere.
When this conference began 8 years ago, it was an LMDS (Local Multi-point Distribution Service) Conference. For a time, broadband wireless was very hot, very hyped, but it failed to take off and there were some very visible failures, including Metrocom's Ricochet service, WinStar Communications, Teligent, and Sprint/Wilcom.
Broadband wireless was composed of a proprietary mix of line-of-sight technologies. There was limited spectrum available. It was expensive, lacking economies of scale. It suffered from poor quality of service. There was an absence of long term commitment from the operators, and only lukewarm acceptance from consumers.
There were some large failures, but there are also some many small successes.
It is working in markets that are underserved by traditional wired networks.
Meanwhile, IEEE 802.16 has been developing standards for NLOS (non-line-of-sight systems). The core standard, for fixed (or non-mobile) services, 802.16D or 802.16-2004 was released last year. A new standard, 802.16E, which enables mobile services, will be finished later this year.
The WiMAX Forum has been developing profiles and conventions for uses of 802.16 that will allow for broad interoperability, large scale, and mass manufacturing of compliant devices. Intel, Fujitsu, and other chip makers are developing chips which will be very inexpensive in quantity. The first WiMAX chips are beginning to appear now. Fixed services do not exist yet, but the industry is already focused on the next generation: mobile.
WiMAX can use licensed spectrum or unlicensed spectrum. It requires less investment than other technologies and is less expensive to operate. Intel plans to build it into laptops so there will be no need to subsidize clients. It has low intellectual property royalties, low latency, it speaks IP, and it can penetrate walls.
It is highly scheduled like ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), so bandwidth is not lost to collisions.
2006 will see fixed products based on 802.16D.
2007 will see nomadic (or portable) devices based on 802.16E.
2008 will see mobile devices (seamless roaming) at city scale.
2009 will see mobile devices at global scale.
This is a very aggressive schedule. The WiMAX Forum wants go to market quickly to beat 3G and 802.20.
The FCC allocated spectrum at 3.67GHz that will be granted to the first operators who can bring services online. Unfortunately, the language of the order requires that operators share the bandwidth using collision recovery techniques that are incompatible with WiMAX. I talked to an engineer from FCC at the show, but he was unaware of this issue.