WaPo misses wireless broadband revolution - again

If you use a Blackberry, Treo, or iPhone, you know the addictive satisfaction of having access to e-mail and the Web anywhere. Instead of scouring the countryside for Wi-Fi hotspots, you just fire up your device wherever there's a phone signal, which is pretty much everywhere these days. For me, using an iPhone on AT&T's outdated EDGE network has whetted my appetite for faster data rates. So it was particularly disappointing to read a recent story in the Washington Post dissing the rapid development of one a true broadband cellular network.

Here at Spectrum we're used to the breezy way the general press writes about complex technologies, but the Post's treatment of an important story - Sprint's bold move into mobile WiMAX - does a great disservice to both that project and the underlying technologies.

The Post's headline was "Struggling Sprint Pushes Its Chips Toward WiMax: Survival May Depend on Untested Service." I'll leave to the business press the issue of whether Sprint is struggling, but to say that it is pushing its chips, implying all of its chips, toward WiMAX is misleading in the extreme. We'll turn to that presently, but more importantly, the idea that WiMAX is untested is just bizarre.

First, let's just remind ourselves what WiMAX is, since the Post article offers only one, rather hapless half-sentence: "WiMax is similar to better-known WiFi technology." Back in 2004 I wrote an article, "WiMax and Wi-Fi: Separate and Unequal," entirely devoted to disabusing publications like the Post of that notion. In fact, it starts out by taking two pubs to task - Business Week and the Washington Post!

"Think of it as Wi-Fi on steroids,â'' Business Weekrecently enthused. The Washington Post, in a story under the headline â''Wi-Fi Expands,â'' similarly confused the two standards. â''The technology will grow more powerful, too, as a type known as WiMax that sends signals up to 30 miles hits the field,â'' the paper reported.

WiMax, in fact, is not a Wi-Fi extension. Wi-Fi is a local-area networking standard developed by the IEEE 802.11 working group and is designed to be used indoors at close range, to distribute Internet access to a bunch of computers in a home or an office. WiMax, on the other hand, is a wireless replacement for a wired broadband connection. That is, itâ''s a new way to get Internet access into the home or office in the first place, and to do so more cheaply and easily than through the wires of telephone companies or cable providers.

Here it is, three years later, and the Post is still putting the same shoe in its mouth. And a new one too - that WiMAX is untested. Does the Post really think a major cellular carrier is going to spend $3 billion deploying a nationwide network without testing it first?

WiMAX, based on the IEEE"s 802.16 standard, has been around for the better part of a decade now. (Without patting ourselves on the back too much, Spectrum's first feature article about 802.16 is dated June 2003.) Yes, mobile WiMAX is newer, but a version of it known as WiBro has not only been tested but deployed in Korea. (See for example, "South Korea Pushes Mobile Broadband: The WiBro scheme advances.")

Yes, the version Sprint will be using, so-called Wave 2 of mobile WiMAX, is even newer, and the WiMAX Forum hasn't completed it's conformance and compatibility testing requirements yet, but Wave 2 is being field tested even as I write this by.... you guessed it, Sprint. The carrier expects to conduct two noncommercial launches by the end of the year, in the Washington D.C. and Chicago areas, and to begin commercially launching in those markets in the first half of 2008.

According to Ali Tabassi, vice president of technology development at Sprint Nextel, this is par for the course. In fact, a few years ago Sprint conducted trials of a similar technology, provided by Flarion, in Raleigh, N.C., with more than 6000 customers. The Flarion wireless broadband service and WiMAX are based on the same core technology for the air interface, OFDMA, which determines the way they cram more and more individual phone calls into a limited amount of radio spectrum.

If this all seems like semantics, lets consider what's at stake here. Sprint is trying to create a fourth-generation wireless network that will break new ground by using the Internet Protocol for both voice and data, and deliver a true wireless broadband service, everywhere in the United States, that moves data at up to 10 megabits per second. That's a rate that most of us don't enjoy even from our DSL or cable broadband service, and it would really make the Web sing on an iPhone.

By the way, Sprint's $3 billion plan sounds like a lot of chips placed on number ".16" at the roulette wheel of wireless investment, but a little perspective is needed. According to Tabassi, Sprint currently spends $7 billion to maintain and enhance its current network. In other words, Sprint still has a lot of chips stacked up on its side of the table.

Back to the important question. Will Sprint's network be pioneering, or well-tested? Both, says Roger Marks, chair of the IEEE 802.16 Working Group on Broadband Wireless Access. "Sprint is certainly a pioneer here, and creating an innovative product that works for the consumer will present interesting challenges. The underlying technology, though, is not a major gamble because they are making use of a broadly-supported standard - IEEE 802.16 - and will benefit from the mobile WiMAX certification process being finalized in the WiMAX Forum. Also, the mobile 802.16 technology has been not only tested but also widely deployed in Korea."


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.