Why not WiMax

WiMax today: While the 30-mile range of the WiMax wireless networking standard promises to eventually connect individuals over vast distances, the technology is currently being tested as a backhaul solution. In the role of backhaul, WiMax can aggregate WiFi mesh network connections and link them to the Internet. It can also provide flexible long-range connectivity to wired government campuses and other LANs.

Michael Bechetti

The new long-range wireless networking technology is slowly rolling out, with various government agencies fielding pilots. How will they use it, and when?

As rural communities go, the Rocky Boy Reservation in north central Montana is about as isolated as you can get. Nestled in the Bear Paw Mountains 50 miles from the Canadian border, the 188-square-mile reservation is almost a three-hour drive from the nearest airport. Profound isolation and a scarcity of opportunities have long challenged the 4,500-member Chippewa Cree Tribe, which calls Rocky Boy home. But in the wake of a successful wireless networking trial, there is hope that some day the situation may change.

In February, a public-private group comprising representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cisco Systems, Intel and others, convened at Rocky Boy to stand up a pilot of WiMax, the long-range IEEE 802.16 wireless networking standard that is starting to make its way into products this year.

'I'll tell you, we were amazed,' says Dan Belcourt, legal counsel for the Chippewa Cree Tribe. 'We were able to essentially videoconference and communicate wirelessly. And boy, the possibilities are infinite. Telemedicine, economic development'which is hard to come by in a rural setting like our reservation'education. Flags were just popping up everywhere as they were rolling out the demo and demonstrating the capabilities.'

For isolated communities such as the Rocky Boy Reservation, wide area broadband wireless networks can finally level the digital playing field. Like the familiar WiFi local networking technology before it, WiMax uses radio waves to link network devices. But whereas the range of WiFi is typically limited to 100 meters or less, WiMax towers can achieve line-of-sight distances as great as 30 miles. The relatively low cost and ample bandwidth of WiMax technology means broadband Internet access and advanced telecommunications services can be economically deployed to isolated communities, even as the technology is used to support growing WiFi mesh networks in urban communities.

At the FOSE trade show last month, Intel's new CEO Paul Otellini said there were more than 100 government WiMax pilots going on today, despite the fact that the technology is not yet in full-blown production. A month ago, Intel introduced what it considers the first production-level WiMax product, its Pro/Wireless 5116 wireless adapter. The WiMax Forum, an industry consortium, just launched a certification program and said it expects certified products to hit the market by year's end.

Still, early WiMax trials have shown promising results. The question government agencies are now starting to ask is, why WiMax?

The hard business of WiMax

In Houston County, Ga., an Intel- and Siemens AG-sponsored test of early WiMax equipment from Alvarion Ltd. of Carlsbad, Calif., produced strong connectivity at tested ranges up to 12.5 miles. At the Rocky Boy Reservation, three WiMax towers were able to provide effective coverage of the entire tribal area. Although the Georgia and Montana trials proved a technical success, neither seems likely to yield a quick deployment.

'There are a couple reasons why wireless networking programs don't get off the ground. One is lack of funding. The other is local politics,' said Matt Stone, a Warner Robbins city councilman and chair of the Wireless Houston County Initiative.

Stone said Houston County faced two choices: Invest public dollars to bootstrap the network and services, with an eye toward selling wholesale broadband access to private services providers, or try to attract a private consortium that could deploy a WiMax network and services in the area. When the county government declined to spend public funds on the effort, the WiMax push stalled. Stone said private interest in a WiMax deployment has since flagged as well.

'A timeline that should take six months can take five or six years while you wait on the right companies to come up with the [return on investment],' Stone said of the county's decision to leave the effort in the private realm.

So although WiMax has been proven to extend broadband to the corners of the United States where technologies such as cable and digital subscriber lines don't yet reach (roughly 10 percent of the nation, according to telecommunications industry estimates), it may be a while before municipalities or service providers bridge the last divide.

In the short term, WiMax appears strongest as a backhaul solution'hooking WiFi and other networks back to the Internet infrastructure rather than providing last-mile connectivity. As such, it's useful for bringing large amounts of bandwidth to local communities, government campuses, military bases and other centralized bodies, but not necessarily to individuals.

Experts say WiMax has garnered a lot of interest among municipalities with WiFi networks already deployed, such as several based on equipment from Tropos Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif. These networks often operate as a mesh, enabling the network to shift and balance loads across nodes.

Even in cities, WiMax to the client will have to wait, however. The high cost and low market penetration of client-side WiMax adapters make services such as WiMax-based meter reading an application in waiting. Moreover, mobile WiMax applications, such as WiMax connectivity in police cars, won't get off the ground until the final 802.16e Mobility specification is ratified. Companies expect 802.16e trials in early 2006, with deployments coming midyear.

That wait may be a deal-breaker for many communities. Densely populated urban centers such as Philadelphia can support mobile and fixed network applications using current WiFi technology, but the wait for affordable and mobile WiMax-enabled clients could stymie networking efforts in places like Houston County.

'The key in justifying a [wireless] build-out is your household density,' Stone said. 'You need a thousand households per square mile or thereabouts.'

Alan Webber, government analyst for research firm Forrester, believes many local governments are getting in over their heads with ambitious wireless rollouts. He points to a failed initiative in Boulder, Colo., to set up publicly run telecommunications services, and feels the high-profile WiFi rollout in Philadelphia could meet a similar end.

'I don't think Philadelphia is going to be successful. One, I think it is going to end up costing more than they think it is. Two, I don't think they have the necessary support or political backbone to pull it off,' Webber said.

Incremental rollout

Webber urged municipal and local governments to deploy wireless networks incrementally. It's an approach that worked well in New Orleans, where the city deployed hundreds of WiFi-connected video cameras in an effort to reduce the city's high murder rate.

'We're not like a lot of other jurisdictions. We have people dying and we needed a system today,' said Chris Drake, project manager in the Mayor's Office of Technology in New Orleans. 'We currently have something in the neighborhood of over one hundred cameras and something like 250 [cameras] by mid to end of summer.'

Despite the high bandwidth demands of the video hardware, Drake said the network has performed well thanks to the density of backhaul connections'what he calls a 'bandwidth injection.'

'One thing was not trying to do too much'just focusing on the cameras. A lot of cities say they're going to do digital divide [programs] and automatic meter reading,' Drake said. 'And then they just over-engineer the network.'

WiMax futures

Drake said his group currently uses proprietary wireless backhaul links, but he expects to transition those to WiMax. At the same time, the city is looking closely at both fixed and mobile 802.16e WiMax applications, for everything from meter reading to public vehicle communications to broadband services for outlying areas. But those efforts must await low-cost WiMax clients.

Many federal organizations, meanwhile, are taking a go-it-slow approach with WiMax. 'The Interior Department was talking about deploying some of this stuff along the southwest border. But they still aren't really comfortable with security, so they are not deploying it yet,' Webber said.

Just as government agencies have been slow to adopt WiFi, they will be careful moving to WiMax. But once the applications are understood and the technology made secure, experts say long-range wireless communications will find a home in all levels of government.

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