Beefy WiMAX will leave you beaming

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am

New-economy professionals desperate to make their products sound irresistible often resort to the buzz phrase 'on steroids'. For example, MMS (multimedia messaging services) is SMS (short message service) on steroids, ultra-wideband is Bluetooth on steroids and the Intel personal server a kind of iPod on steroids.

Why the s-word has become so trendy beats me. After all, it means an organic fat-soluble compound that turns people into gorillas. Consequently, I place more trust in a product described as being on crack cocaine, or even the Atkins diet.

Therefore, when I first encountered a networking newcomer called WiMAX, which is routinely described as 'Wi-fi on steroids', I was wary. But it might just catch on - the WiMAX Forum, which was founded to make it happen, now has firms such as AOL Time Warner, Lucent Technologies, Cisco Systems and Huawei Technologies on board. So let's explore the roots of a phenomenon, which has nothing to do with elasticated waistbands or large cinema screens.

WiMAX is the sister of Wi-fi (wireless fidelity). Also known by Klingons as 802.11b, this protocol enables mobile-device users to beam files to each other and surf the Net wirelessly.

The range, up to about 60 metres, is not bad, given that, to make two devices tango via less-with-it infrared technology, you need to grind their ports together and roar: 'Beam it! Beam the message.' And with its 10-metre range, Bluetooth is only a little less painful to use than infrared.

WiMAX easily eclipses all three alternatives. Its range of up to 50km means you could theoretically communicate with anyone anywhere from Lowu to Lamma.

Another strength of WiMAX is its capacity. According to the WiMAX Forum, its shared data rate of up to 70 Mbps equals enough bandwidth to simultaneously support hundreds of homes hooked up to digital subscriber lines and more than 60 businesses with T1-type connectivity - if they care to become entangled.

You may wonder why businesses already equipped with broadband would bother. Idle curiosity? Upgrade fever? The real reason is apparently safety: WiMAX can operate as a backup internet access system in case the established system is attacked by gremlins and goes down.

If you assume that installing the safeguard will cost more than it set back George W. Bush and John Kerry to mobilise the vote for the US presidential election, you are wrong. Firms can offer WiMAX services for less than a cable line because they do not need to rig up or sustain a physical network.

Beyond the office, WiMAX could well prove the answer to the prayers of road warriors with a hunger to log on anywhere, anytime. I can see the appeal. I am just about to embark on a holiday in Australia and somehow doubt there will be too many Wi-fi hot spots in the Great Sandy Desert, which may oblige me to SMS reports chunk by chunk.

With WiMAX, I would at least have a chance of logging on to zing texts in the usual fashion. That time may not be far away. According to the WiMAX Forum, the technology will be incorporated in notebooks and PDAs in 2006 or 2007.

A WiMAX evangelist might say its rise represents the final stage in the development of the global village, but that is hogwash. If this is really such a small world, why is it still possible to spend a day stuck inside a plane? What we really need is a version of WiMAX that packs the power to beam people from one spot to another: jet travel on steroids.