WiMAX expected to supercharge wireless applications

By Colin Gibbs

WiMAX could be the technology that fuels the fusion of all sorts of mobile applications, integrating video, location-based services and a host of other offerings.

And analysts generally agree that speedy access to the wireless Web will be the key.

“When I talk WiMAX, I always quote my boss Sean Maloney,” said Ron Peck of Intel Corp., referring to the company’s general manager of sales and marketing. “If you’re pitching WiMAX, you must repeat: the mobile Internet is the next big thing.”

It’s no secret that WiMAX offers a combination of wide coverage, high capacity and low latency rarely seen—if not unprecedented—in wireless. The technology is claimed to top out at 70 megabits per second and delivers a footprint of as many as 37 miles under ideal conditions (although not simultaneously—like DSL, the network’s speed is influenced by its reach, and vice versa).

Actual network speeds are likely to average between 2 and 4 Mbps, according to operators. But even on the low end, WiMAX appears to be speedier and offer more capacity than 3G networks.

Fat pipe for hungry users

That combination means more than just connecting lots of users more efficiently, according to Daryl Schoolar, a senior analyst with In-Stat. It means more consumers can consume more data, more quickly.

“From everything I’ve been told by vendors who make both WiMAX and cellular equipment, WiMAX has significantly lower lag,” said Schoolar. “They also tell me it can support more connected users. That would certainly lend itself toward real-time apps such as streaming apps.”Which is why WiMAX is expected to give birth to a host of connected devices dedicated to a single use. Not only is the technology likely to serve as a catalyst for the production of mobile music and video players, it will provide connectivity to consumer electronics such as cameras, camcorders and gaming devices—devices that don’t traditionally offer network access.

Taking advantage of WiMAX

But even as it sparks an increase in the number of dedicated devices, WiMAX is predicted to provide a boost to converged devices. Just as 3G networks and GPS technology has provided a platform for developers to build compelling applications that deliver both relatively low latency and remarkably accurate location information, WiMAX’s speed and capacity could prove ideal for offerings that fuse a number of different applications.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of the video side of the Internet,” said Peck, including video-sharing and other mobile social networking features. “I also think you’re going to see a ton of visual apps” that integrate video with location-aware applications, games and other offerings.

Other possibilities include teleconferences that include both video and Web-based applications, and multiplayer games that feature GPS location information and nearly real-time play.

And while WiMAX may suffer in urban environments—where indoor usage may slow the network to the lower range of expected speeds even when a tower is relatively nearby—the technology will work hand-in-hand with Wi-Fi and other channels of connectivity, Peck said.

Questioning Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is “stupid,” according to Peck, and simply offers a connection without taking other technologies into account. But WiMAX is “very smart” and can hand users off if a more efficient network is available. So consumers could surf the Web or sit in on a multiplayer gaming session on WiMAX on the commute home, then automatically switch to Wi-Fi when they get indoors.

So the new technology may provide a platform that not only serves as a high-speed highway, it will allow devices to take detours whenever backups occur. Developers will scramble to leverage WiMAX, Peck predicted, throwing all sorts of applications at the wall to see what sticks.

“I think it’s going to be the wild, wild West,” Peck predicted.
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