The IEEE 802.16 Ethernet standard for wireless metropolitan-area networks (MANs) is opening up a new area of communications, though no one knows what shape the market will eventually take. Even though the standard has significant backing in the industry from operators, equipment and chip suppliers, and content providers, estimates of market rollout and the scale of deployment vary widely.
The standard provides for variable deployments that encompass a wide range of data transmission speeds and distances over several distinct radio frequency (RF) wavebands. These factors, plus the competitive or complementary effect of other network technologies, make it difficult to predict which 802.16 applications ultimately will be successful.
Equipment development for this standard is being driven by two main revisions of the standard: 802.16d for fixed or somewhat portable applications, and 802.16e, which stresses mobility and roaming. Applications that have been suggested for the technology include rural and last-mile urban broadband connections, 802.11 hotspot and cellular backhauls, and high-speed enterprise connectivity for small to medium businesses. The 801.16e revision may spur a market for piconetworks serving enterprises over city-wide geographic areas.
The obvious benefits the 802.16 standard offers end users are higher data rates and increased coverage area compared to 802.11 wireless Ethernet (Wi-Fi). For service providers, the spectral efficiency of the new standard maximizes the number of customers who can be served within a given area. Broadband wireless access also is likely to have an impact on cellular communications, furthering the convergence of wireless data, voice, and video services.
Because the 802.16 standard is still open to interpretation and nobody knows yet what applications will take off, developers face a wide range of implementation options. Aside from conventional data networking, 802.16 is expected to have an effect on 3G and especially 4G cellular services, introducing greater flexibility, plus better and faster applications. In a world of communications convergence, 802.16 provides another high-speed wireless pipe that is likely to be applied in any number of ways, often in conjunction with other forms of delivery.