WiMax well suited for metropolitan-area networks

However, cities must build a business case for using them to replace commercial offerings

WiMax, which has been called Wi-Fi on steroids, is a standard for IP wireless metropolitan-area networks that provides coverage areas measured in miles rather than feet.

It is defined in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard 802.16, first adopted in 2004. The most recent iteration, 802.16m, provides as much as 40 megabits/sec throughput for fixed service with higher speeds on the way.

“It’s a strong technology; the standard is very good,” said Brian Anderson, program manager for Houston’s wireless broadband initiative. “WiMax suits municipal applications just fine.”

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However, although the standard is mature and interoperable products are available, municipalities thinking about installing a wireless network need to develop a case built on business requirements and solid cost savings before deciding to abandon commercial services, Anderson said.

“The idea that 'if you build it, they will come' does not work.”

Houston settled on WiMax after abandoning overambitious plans for a network based on Wi-Fi, the IEEE family of standards for wireless local-area networking.

The name “WiMAX” now usually stands alone, but originally, it was an acronym for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. Coverage for a base station can extend as far as 30 miles for a fixed installation with less interference than Wi-Fi and can operate in both licensed and unlicensed radio bands.

For Houston, the reduced number of base stations needed to cover the 640-square-mile city made the WiMax metropolitan-area network more affordable than a Wi-Fi network. The elimination of costly T1 lines now used to link outlying facilities should produce an immediate savings that Anderson said will help to pay for the city’s $1.4 million investment in two years or less. An additional $5 million for the project is coming from a federal grant funded through the stimulus law. There are expected to be other savings as well in reduced maintenance costs with a remotely managed traffic light system and automated meter reading for 500,000 water service customers.

“Municipalities have to look at costs, and they have to have a business case,” Anderson said. “Develop the business case upfront. There are some very tangible benefits and cost savings,” but these need to be identified in advance so government executives and administrators can be sold on the project rather than dragged into it.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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