Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: email@example.com
Why one wireless broadband option hasn't lived up to its hype.
It's easy to see why some people call WiMAX, a form of wireless broadband, "Wi-Fi on steroids." Rather than hotspots of connectivity -- a dot of Wi-Fi in a park here or a library there -- WiMAX promises to create a giant hotspot, large enough to cover an entire city. Wireless Internet access on such a massive scale would be valuable to governments, especially municipalities that could use it to remotely read utility meters or stream crime-scene video to police in their squad cars. So ever since state and local officials began hearing about WiMAX in 2001, they've been wondering when this ballyhooed technology would be ready for prime time.
They're still wondering. WiMAX has found limited uses as a behind-the-scenes technology deep in the guts of some municipal wireless networks. But as a front-line technology, it hasn't delivered. It's been "just around the corner" for quite some time. "We're waiting for Godot, we're waiting for the Messiah and we're waiting for WiMAX," says Barry Orton, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Now, WiMAX watchers have their eyes on two experiments that may, finally, show whether the technology is for real. Sprint has been testing a commercial WiMAX service in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C. And Grand Rapids, Michigan, has partnered with Clearwire to deliver WiMAX coverage over all 45 square miles of the city. Both projects have been hit with delays. Sprint had hoped to go live with its service in April but pushed it back until an undetermined date later this year. Clearwire was supposed to have the Grand Rapids system implemented at the end of last year, but as of a month ago, Clearwire had not announced when the WiMAX network would actually launch.
The long wait for WiMAX is a cautionary tale of the complexities of the modern telecommunications landscape. New wireless technologies are costly to build out, the competition between service providers is intense and the buzz around anything new can quickly eclipse its potential. For governments, the WiMAX saga is a reminder that it's better to think of broadband in terms of the problem they are trying to solve, rather than placing bets on any one technology.
WiMAX stands for World Interoperability for Microwave Access. WiMAX is supposed to function much as Wi-Fi does, only better. Its range is measured in miles, rather than feet. Its signal penetrates walls and tree cover, unlike Wi-Fi. And WiMAX runs on licensed spectrum, so it is more secure than Wi-Fi applications, many of which run via unlicensed airwaves.
Ironically, telecommunications companies have deployed WiMAX more quickly in developing nations than in the United States. Parts of more than 100 countries are bypassing the DSL and cable connections common here and going straight to WiMAX. In most of the United States, however, competing methods of getting online -- both wired and unwired -- already exist, and the business models surrounding each of them are more entrenched. Companies entering the WiMAX market must slug it out with telecom and cable companies that already have invested many millions of dollars in fiber networks, cellular broadband, Wi-Fi, and before long, new wireless offerings in the 700 MHz spectrum.
WiMAX also has had something of a chicken-and-egg problem. For the past few years, equipment and telecom companies have been arguing over what should come first: the network or the laptops, PDAs and other devices that would use it. Manufacturers are just starting to commit to embedding WiMAX technology into new gadgets in the same way that Wi-Fi capability is now built into to most mobile devices. When WiMAX finally does "arrive," says Godfrey Chua, research manager with IDC, a telecom market research firm, "the big challenge is for it to become pervasive." Wi-Fi will not slink away quietly. Wi-Fi devices are ubiquitous in this country.
Look at Oklahoma City. As part of an overall public safety communications upgrade, the city invested in a municipal Wi-Fi network that covers 600 square miles. Wi-Fi is affordable and effective enough for the city's purposes. If and when WiMAX comes along, Oklahoma City could retrofit its Wi-Fi devices for the new technology, but that would cost money. For now, the feeling is: Why bother? "Even if WiMAX were embraced today as the standard, it will be a very, very, very long time before the cheap and ready access to Wi-Fi would be overcome," says Mark Meier, the city's director of information technology.
If WiMAX has been slow to make good on its promise for mobile users, some municipalities have managed to find uses for the underlying technology. Houston employs an unlicensed version of WiMAX for what's known as "backhaul" in one of its communications networks. That is, WiMAX doesn't push the Internet out to the field, but it helps get data back from it. Some municipalities use a fixed version of WiMAX as a back-up network in case of a disaster. And Greensboro, North Carolina, has some employees using an early version of mobile WiMAX, one that was developed before the wireless industry adopted a common set of standards for WiMAX products.
It was a test of that system in Greensboro that sold Grand Rapids on giving WiMAX a try. Employees traveled to Greensboro, booted up a laptop and drove at high speeds around town. They encountered no problems streaming video and sending e-mail. Then they drove into areas with dense foliage and behind tall buildings -- places where Wi-Fi typically loses a signal -- and the signal remained strong and constant. Grand Rapids also gave Wi-Fi a tryout, but the difference was "night and day," according to Sally Wesorick, the wireless project manager. "Your five-year-old could have made the decision."
Currently, Grand Rapids police cars and fire engines use laptops that have minimal capabilities. They can't, for instance, access real-time criminal histories or driver's license information. With WiMAX, the city hopes to ramp up to mobile video surveillance as well as other public safety tasks, such as distributing Amber Alert photographs. The city also hopes citywide wireless can improve other agency operations, help attract and retain business, and narrow the digital divide.
The contract between Grand Rapids and Clearwire calls for mobile WiMAX coverage in all of the city. The network is to be funded, built, owned and operated by Clearwire. While the price for businesses and residents has not been announced, Clearwire threw in free connections for hundreds of city employees -- a reward for taking the nation's first gamble on municipal WiMAX. A lot of cities and counties are interested in seeing how it works. But until it's up and running, they'll be in a familiar position: waiting for WiMAX.
In the meantime, the best strategy for governments looking at mobile broadband is not to get fixated on any particular technology, but to ask for particular outcomes. That's the approach a group of Silicon Valley cities took recently when they went shopping for an outdoor wireless broadband network. They didn't specify that they wanted WiMAX -- or any other technology, for that matter. Instead, they left it up to the private sector to sort through the available technologies. All the cities wanted was the most reliable service they could get at the lowest cost. "We're neutral on WiMAX," says Brian Moura, assistant city manager of San Carlos, California. "We really don't care" what technology vendors use.