The Wi-Fi War
When most Americans think of mobile streaming video, they probably think of watching YouTube or Hulu via Wi-Fi in a Starbucks, library, or airport. Less sedentary mobile streaming mavens might think of video streaming through a 3G cellular network to or from a smartphone. In the former scenario, data rates can slow to a crawl as users pile onto a local Wi-Fi network, while today’s 3G cellular networks (GSM/HSPA for AT&T and T-Mobile; CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A for Sprint and Verizon) offer download speeds in the range of 600Kbps to 1.4Mbps and upload speeds between 500Kbps and 800Kbps—not enough for, say, live video chat. But WiMAX, the first incarnation of a new generation of wireless broadband technology, is poised to change the way that both types of users experience streaming video.
WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) actually refers to two currently deployed IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standards: fixed WiMAX (802.16d) and the newer mobile WiMAX (802.16e). Originally conceived as a wide-area alternative to Wi-Fi, WiMAX coverage is often measured in miles, not feet. (Proponents refer to WiMAX as "Wi-Fi on steroids" and its coverage area as "über hotspots.") "WiMAX is the only mobile network out there capable of handling streaming media today," says Barry Davis, Clearwire’s executive director of product planning. "With WiMAX, you get the same performance on the road as you do at home."
Figure 1. "WiMAX is the only mobile network out there capable of handling streaming media today," says Barry Davis, Clearwire's executive director of product planning. "With WiMAX, you get the same performance on the road as you do at home."
Data rates and effective distances from base stations depend on many factors, including terrain, line of sight or lack thereof, and spectrum. Japan’s UQ WiMAX debuted in February 2009, boasting up to 40Mbps on the downlink and 10Mbps on the uplink. Clearwire, the largest U.S. provider, promises a more realistic but still speedy 2Mbps–4Mbps coming down and 1Mbps–2Mbps going up.
Still in its infancy as a wireless standard, WiMAX has already been used to solve a variety of video-data-transport dilemmas where wired lines are impractical, satellite or microwave trucks are too costly, and currently available cellular networks provide insufficient bandwidth:
• During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, local ABC affiliate KGMH used WiMAX to feed live video at 1Mbps from the daily press briefing, freeing up the station’s microwave truck and avoiding entanglement in an already stressed telco infrastructure.
• TourTechSupport, an IT support services company based in Raleigh, N.C., used WiMAX for an April 2008 live webcast at the New York red-carpet premiere of the feature film, Made of Honor. "WiMAX is the fastest and easiest way that we’re aware of to get good, reliable bandwidth [in urban settings]," says TourTechSupport founder and CEO Allen Cook.
• Intel, Clearwire, and Livecast partnered in January with Portland’s MAX Light Rail system for a pilot project in which GPS-enabled cameras mounted on commuter trains enabled live website monitoring of track status and train locations.
Figure 2. "WiMAX is the fastest and easiest way that we're aware of to get good, reliable bandwidth [in urban settings]," says TourTechSupport founder and CEO Allen Cook. Figure 3. "WiMAX is a much more aggressive, open-minded modality than the traditional walled garden of the mobile world," says William Mutual, CEO of LiveCast Media, Inc.
WiMAX is being deployed in both residential and enterprise situations to fill gaps in the broadband landscape. Virginia-based DigitalBridge Communications launched early deployments of fixed WiMAX in Rexburg, Idaho, in 2007 and mobile WiMAX in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2008. The company currently delivers residential WiMAX as a relatively inexpensive, low-maintenance alternative to DSL and cable modems in small to medium-sized towns. Towerstream, operating in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles, offers fixed WiMAX service to enterprises as an easy-to-deploy, cost-effective, wireless alternative to T-1 and higher wired services.
While fixed WiMAX has filled a niche in the broadband delivery space, it is the new mobile WiMAX that is attracting attention and investment dollars in the U.S. The development of the mobile WiMAX standard has coincided with Intel’s increasing commitment to mobile computing in general. With the advent of its low-power Centrino Atom platform, Intel has helped spawn a new breed of mobile devices, including UMPCs (UltraMobile PCs), MIDs (mobile internet devices), and netbooks. Intel expects that 2009 will be the first year in which more MIDs will be sold than desktop PCs, and more than a third of Intel-powered UMPCs coming out this year will include dual WiMAX/Wi-Fi-enabled chipsets.
In addition to spurring the proliferation of WiMAX-ready devices, Intel also made a $1.6 billion investment in Clearwire and its city-by-city rollout of the first nationwide WiMAX network. After extensive negotiations last fall, Clearwire merged with Sprint’s Baltimore WiMAX network (which debuted in September 2008 under the XOHM brand) and added its own WiMAX network in Portland, Ore., in January 2009. The company, now 51% owned by Sprint, has announced plans to be up in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas/Fort Worth before the end of 2009 and promises coverage in 80 markets serving a potential subscriber base of 120 million by the end of 2010. In addition to its funding from Intel, Clearwire received another $1.6 billion from Time-Warner, Comcast, Bright House Networks, and Google.
WiMAX vs. LTE
Although these and other heavyweight backers have placed their bets on WiMAX, significant obstacles lie ahead in the road to WiMAX ubiquity. Most significantly, AT&T and Verizon (in partnership with Vodaphone) have backed LTE (Long Term Evolution, the next step on the GSM/UMTS/HSPA evolution path) as the wireless broadband standard of the near future. While WiMAX emerged from the computing world as the next iteration of Ethernet and Wi-Fi, LTE is being developed by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) and represents the telecom industry’s best shot at dominating the market for 4G. (WiMAX and LTE are actually pre-4G technologies. For the purposes of this article, we will call them 4G, with the understanding that 4G, as defined by the IEEE and ITU [International Telecommunication Union], refers to the later generation WiMAX 802.16m and LTE-Advanced, respectively.) In some sense, the competition between WiMAX and LTE for 4G supremacy represents a battle between the computing and telecom worlds for control of the wireless broadband future.