Electronic Design

WiMAX Advances Broadband Wireless Dramatically

Broadband wireless access is on the verge of a significant breakthrough that will change the way users access voice, data, and video—the "triple play"—through the broadband pipe. For the past decade, different broadband wireless solutions have fallen short due to various reasons. Most significantly, they were proprietary systems—expensive, incompatible, and lacking broad-based industry support. Available spectrums were regulated, and the implemented systems were handicapped by line-of-sight requirements restricting widespread implementation. The market splintered, operators hedged their commitments, and the quality of service suffered.

But the advent of the IEEE 802.16-2004 WiMAX (Wireless Interoperability for Microwave Access) standard establishes a common platform that promises greater success. WiMAX provides a non-line-of-sight capability that can move massive amounts of data reliably over long distances, at speeds approximating 70 Mbits/s and distances up to 30 miles. In addition, WiMAX provides an ideal bridge between the "last mile" and the wide-area network (WAN), so it can replace networks based on DSL or cable, at lower costs. WiMAX also provides broadband access to backfilling areas where landline technologies have trouble backhauling Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular networks.

As in almost every sector of the electronics industry, standardization is critical. Compliance with the WiMAX standard will ensure interoperability, delivering cost-efficient products and services to the market. Standards-based equipment replaces the pricey custom solutions that deprive suppliers of the ability to achieve economies of scale. Costs come down, carriers and operators develop long-term commitments to the technology, and users become more accepting as they adopt it. In short, it's a virtuous circle that positions WiMAX for greater success.

Other factors also are contributing to the bright outlookfor WiMAX. The availability of affordable spectrums is a notable one. The regulatory climate worldwide is changing in almost every marketplace as federal agencies and legislatures reduce or eliminate the costs of access, releasing additional spectrums to the market. This will eliminate the limits on affordable spectrums that had contributed to the failure of past efforts to deliver affordable broadband wireless access.

WiMAX-based systems deployment will begin this year. Suppliers can expect steady, reliable growth that will focus initially on markets in China, India, South Asia, and many locations in South America. Growth is also expected in Europe and North America.

Major equipment makers and their carrier customers will develop basestations, subscriber stations, or customer premise equipment (CPE). As the CPE costs decrease, others will enter the market with original design manufacturing (ODM) models. As deployments progress, this competition will accelerate as many manufacturers start building more affordable CPE.

In the meantime, two important events are occurring to maintain the momentum that WiMAX has generated. For one, WiMAXcertified equipment will be deployed into networks in many markets and locations around the world. The test standards have now been established and the first steps in the certification process are under way through plug tests, which started in July, and through trial network deployments that will begin this year and run into 2006. This process must remain robust, and all IC, equipment, and systems vendors must fully support the process.

Second, the WiMAX mobility specification, 802.16e, is scheduled to be ratified by the end of this year or early next year. Mobile WiMAX will be a completely different playing field compared to fixed WiMAX. This will be more difficult and complex, will have more tradeoff considerations, and will require more global cooperation at all levels. The revenue potential of mobile WiMAX has drawn many operators to become WiMAX Forum members, further validating the market potential of mobile WiMAX. Many semiconductor companies will compete for worldwide market shares.

Looking ahead, it is easy to envision WiMAX converging with 3G cellular, Wi-Fi, and other technologies, with the emergence of seamless, network-to-network roaming and the creation of multiband, multimode cellular handsets.

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