WiMAX, the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is a telecommunications technology that provides wireless data in a variety of ways, from point-to-point links to full mobile cellular type access. It is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, which is also called WirelessMAN. The name "WiMAX" was created by the WiMAX Forum, which was formed in June 2001 to promote conformance and interoperability of the standard. The forum describes WiMAX as "a standards-based technology enabling the delivery of last mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL" (and also to High Speed Packet Access)
The terms "fixed WiMAX", "mobile WiMAX", "802.16d" and "802.16e" are frequently used incorrectly. Correct definitions are the following:
- 802.16-2004 is often called 802.16d, since that was the working party that developed the standard. It is also frequently referred to as "fixed WiMAX" since it has no support for mobility.
- 802.16e-2005 is an amendment to 802.16-2004 and is often referred to in shortened form as 802.16e. It introduced support for mobility, amongst other things and is therefore also frequently called "mobile WiMAX".
The bandwidth and reach of WiMAX make it suitable for the following potential applications:
- Connecting Wi-Fi hotspots with other parts of the Internet.
- Providing a wireless alternative to cable and DSL for last mile broadband access.
- Providing data and telecommunications services.
- Providing a source of Internet connectivity as part of a business continuity plan. That is, if a business has a fixed and a wireless Internet connection, especially from unrelated providers, they are unlikely to be affected by the same service outage.
- Providing portable connectivity.
WiMAX subscriber units are available in both indoor and outdoor versions from several manufacturers. Self-install indoor units are convenient, but radio losses mean that the subscriber must be significantly closer to the WiMAX base station than with professionally-installed external units. As such, indoor-installed units require a much higher infrastructure investment as well as operational cost (site lease, backhaul, maintenance) due to the high number of base stations required to cover a given area. Indoor units are comparable in size to a cable modem or DSL modem. Outdoor units are roughly the size of a laptop PC, and their installation is comparable to a residential satellite dish.
With the potential of mobile WiMAX, there is an increasing focus on portable units. This includes handsets (similar to cellular smartphones) and PC peripherals (PC Cards or USB dongles). In addition, there is much emphasis from operators on consumer electronics devices (game terminals, MP3 players and the like); it is notable this is more similar to Wi-Fi than 3G cellular technologies.
Some cellular companies are evaluating WiMAX as a means of increasing bandwidth for a variety of data-intensive applications. Sprint Nextel announced in mid-2006 that it would invest about US$ 5 billion in a WiMAX technology buildout over the next few years. Since that time Sprint has been dealt setbacks in defections of (Nextel) iDEN and 3G subscribers that have resulted in steep quarterly losses and led to a management shake up with Dan Hesse as its new CEO. On May 7, 2008, Sprint, Clearwire, Google, Intel, Comcast, and Time Warner announced a pooling of 2.5 GHz spectrum and formation of a new company which will take the name Clearwire. The new company hopes to benefit from combined services offerings and network resources as a springboard past its competitors. The cable companies will provide media services to other partners while gaining access to the wireless network as an MVNO. Google will contribute Android handset device development and applications and will receive revenue share for advertising and other services they provide. Clearwire Sprint and current Clearwire gain a majority stock ownership in the new venture and ability to access between the new Clearwire and Sprint 3G networks. Some details remain unclear including how soon and in what form announced multi-mode WiMAX and 3G EV-DO devices will be available. This raises questions that arise for availability of competitive chips that require licensing of Qualcomm's IPR.
Some analysts have questioned how the deal will work out: Although fixed-mobile convergence has been a recognized factor in the industry, prior attempts to form partnerships among wireless and cable companies have generally failed to lead to significant benefits to the participants. Other analysts point out that as wireless progresses to higher bandwidth, it inevitably competes more directly with cable and DSL, thrusting competitors into bed together. Also, as wireless broadband networks grow more dense and usage habits shift, the need for increased back haul and media service will accelerate, therefore the opportunity to leverage cable assets is expected to increase.
WiMAX is a possible replacement candidate for cellular phone technologies such as GSM and CDMA, or can be used as a layover to increase capacity. It has also been considered as a wireless backhaul technology for 2G, 3G, and 4G networks in both developed and developing nations.
"Backhaul" for remote cellular operations is typically provided via satellite, and in urban areas via one or several T1 connections. WiMAX is mobile broadband and as such has much more substantial backhaul need. Therefore traditional backhaul solutions are not appropriate. Consequently the role of very high capacity wireless microwave point-to-point backhaul (200 or more Mbit/s with typically 1 ms or less delay) is on the rise. Also fiber backhaul is more appropriate.
Deploying WiMAX in rural areas with limited or no internet backbone will be challenging as additional methods and hardware will be required to procure sufficient bandwidth from the nearest sources — the difficulty being in proportion to the distance between the end-user and the nearest sufficient internet backbone.
Given the limited wired infrastructure in some developing countries, the costs to install a WiMAX station in conjunction with an existing cellular tower or even as a solitary hub are likely to be small in comparison to developing a wired solution. Areas of low population density and flat terrain are particularly suited to WiMAX and its range. For countries that have skipped wired infrastructure as a result of prohibitive costs and unsympathetic geography, WiMAX can enhance wireless infrastructure in an inexpensive, decentralized, deployment-friendly and effective manner.