Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) is a form of wireless Internet service that can offer Internet accessibility to its subscribers located within 30 miles of the nearest base station (fixed or mobile), with speeds touching a maximum of 70 Mbps. This is much wider and faster coverage compared to traditional Wi-Fi networks. WiMAX basically is a neat blend of broadband speeds, wireless access, and broader coverage similar to cell phone networks. It’s the fourth alternative to access the Internet after Wi-Fi, broadband, and dial-up. Based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, WiMAX is often also referred to as IEEE 802.16.

Generally, cable and phone companies do not offer necessary wires for seamless broadband Internet availability in suburbs and rural areas. WiMAX defies these industry norms and provides coverage to the traditionally blacked-out areas. Besides providing high-speed network to laptops and desktops, WiMAX can also be used on compatible mobile devices such as tablet computers and smartphones. As a result, WiMAX competes with both Wi-Fi and mobile phone operators. And due to its high-speed data transfer capabilities, WiMAX is a part of the 4G standard and is often pitted against Long Term Evolution (LTE).

History

WiMAX’s development can be in large attributed to IEEE 802.16 standards that came about in 1999.  WiMAX happened in 2001 and has been supported and developed by the WiMAX Forum (set up in 2001) – a consortium comprising several wireless industry players and leaders – that primarily focuses on IEEE 802.16 standards. Service providers must adhere to the consortium’s specifications and regulations to market and sell their products as WiMAX technology.

Working Mechanism

WiMAX incorporates some key technologies to offer high-speed data: Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex (OFDM) and Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO). OFDM augments the capacity of a network by dividing the information and pushing them through as smaller bits in a parallel mode. This translates in decreased interference and the capacity to send more information simultaneously. MIMO, on the other hand, incorporates multiple antenna strays for enhancing communication performance, which means more information can be transferred sans the need for increased power or bandwidth. OFDM technology is also used by LTE.

The WiMAX setup comprises the following:

  • Tower: The WiMAX tower is similar to regular mobile phone towers in form and function. The tower is capable of offering network coverage to an area as large as 3000 square miles or 8000 square km.
  • Receiver/Antenna: This could be a small box or car, like the PCMCIA, or could be built directly into the laptop the way Wi-Fi is.

WiMAX wireless service can be sought in the following two methods:

  • The first WiMAX service was called non-line-of-sight, which means the computer or a mobile device connects to the WiMAX tower with its inbuilt antenna. This route is similar to Wi-Fi and uses a 2 to 11 GHz frequency range.
  • The other service route is called line-of-sight wherein the WiMAX tower connects to a dish antenna located on a roof or any other suitable place. Compared to the previous method, this wireless route is stronger and uses a frequency range peaking at 66 GHz. The higher the frequency, lesser is the interference and more bandwidth, as a result.

To benefit from WiMAX services, one may buy a computer compatible with WiMAX or have an old laptop or PC upgraded to acquire WiMAX capability. For accessing the base WiMAX station, an encryption code would be offered by the service provider.

Speed and Connectivity Range

WiMAX can theoretically offer speeds up to 75 Mbps – the actual speed could be lower or higher depending on location, device and the service provider. As aforementioned, WiMAX can cover a 30-mile radius – good enough to cover most cities. The data transfer rates are the highest when the user is close to the base station. The data speeds decrease with increasing distance from the WiMAX source.

Generally, users on the edge of the coverage would get transfer speeds in the 1 to 4 Mbps range. According to the WiMAX Forum, users can expect data speeds close to 30 Mbps within a radius of 3 kilometers from the tower. The actual download speeds may differ across users, location, number of users on the network, and the WiMAX device being used.

WiMAX vs. Wi-Fi

WiMAX may sound like a “pro” or an advanced version of Wi-Fi, but that’s not so. WiMAX offers much better speed than traditional Wi-Fi networks. However, WiMAX shines most in terms of its coverage capabilities, thanks to its transmitter and the frequencies used. Wi-Fi generally offers a network range of no more than 100 feet or 30 meters. WiMAX towers can also interconnect – meaning the network signal can be sent from one tower to another. This is why WiMAX is able to cover much wider areas. And unlike cell phone towers, WiMAX towers can cover bigger areas and therefore there isn’t the need to have several towers close together.

WiMAX vs. LTE

WiMAX and LTE are 4G standards and are based on the same OFDM technology; however, the frequencies used by the two are not the same. When comparing WiMAX and LTE, we are actually referring to mobile WiMAX and not the one used for home-based networks. Both theoretically and during real usage, LTE speeds are faster than what WiMAX mobile could offer. Also, LTE is much more capable of integrating with existing cellular technologies. Therefore, the transition from 3G to 4G is much smoother with LTE. WiMAX almost always has a tough time relocating 4G once the network falls into 3G space.

The total number of simultaneous users can affect any network’s strength. In the case of WiMAX and LTE, WiMAX seems to be less troubled by such user congestion. However, since LTE is faster than WiMAX, the speed drop evens out the gap, nullifying any advantage WiMAX has over LTE as far as network strength or speed goes. As aforementioned, WiMAX and LTE use different frequencies. LTE runs on 700 megahertz (MHz) while WiMAX requires 2.3 and 3.5 gigahertz (GHz). This frequency difference doesn’t impact the network’s speed, dependability or functionality; but it has a say in the deployment of the respective networks.

WiMAX Disappointments

The concept of WiMAX was quite revolutionary; however, it didn’t get the same kind of response and commitment at the execution level. Sprint announced WiMAX in 2006 but it took a couple of years to launch the same in 2008. And by early 2010, there were only 30 million people using WiMAX. Also, WiMAX didn’t see enough takers in Western Europe since LTE was already more popular there. The WiMAX technology itself cannot be blamed for this lackluster adoption.  

Network providers had an alternative in the form of LTE, which was offered by Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) and didn’t require freshly built infrastructure. This resulted in LTE gaining traction in no time. Even Sprint, along with Clearwire (another telecommunications operator), resorted to building LTE networks. LTE also meant much better and wider mobile phone handset options for users.