Wireless connectivity represents a breakthrough in telecommunications. Absolving devices of having to be anchored to a wire is just as revolutionary as the invention of the mobile phone. Different wireless technologies have emerged to encompass the needs of people, businesses, industries, and other entities, with connectivity required for a wide array of devices ranging from personal devices like mobile phones and laptops to highly sophisticated technical equipment. One such wireless technology that emerged in the early 2000s was WiMAX. You may have heard about WiMAX and that it could help provide wireless internet access to entire cities.
WiMAX – Worldwide Interoperability Microwave Access (AXess) – is a relatively inexpensive, wide-reaching wireless network, capable of delivering broadband internet connectivity to areas lacking in a wired network infrastructure. WiMAX represents the “last mile” of connectivity, which is the part of the telecommunications network that physically reaches end-users. At its conception in 2002, it was considered a wireless replacement for DSL broadband internet, providing broadband internet over a wireless network. WiMAX is an example of a MAN (metropolitan area network). A personal area network (PAN) is used to connect devices together over a very short distance (like Bluetooth). A local area network (LAN) is used to connect several devices in a single location like a home or office. MANs allow devices to connect over the scale of an entire town or city.
WiMAX technology is a family of wireless standards developed by the Institution for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest association of technical professionals, which is concerned with the education, technical advancement, and standardization of electrical and electronic engineering, telecommunications, and computer engineering. The official name coined for WiMAX by the IEEE is WirelessMAN and it was given a designation of 802.16, with many standards falling underneath that family, such as 802.16s, 802.16a, and 802.16e (AeroMACS).
The network, basically, requires a tower linked to the internet through a wired connection (like a T3 line, which is fiber optic or coaxial cable). This tower transmits and receives the wireless signal. The rest of the network is composed of receivers on the devices that are being connected (much like the WiFi receiver in your laptop). A tower can also link to another tower. Wireless microwaves in WiMAX can be transmitted in two ways:Line-of-sight: this requires a special fixed dish antenna as a receiver, pointed directly at the transmitting tower, and employs high frequency waves. It can receive a signal over a range of more than 8000 square kilometers (approx. 3000 square miles). Non-line-of-sight: this is similar to WiFi in that the receiver doesn’t need to be pointed at the tower. It uses much lower frequency waves (the same as WiFi, actually), which can penetrate and go around obstacles, but the range is limited to 65 square kilometers (approx. 25 sq miles). WiMAX connections could provide – in theory – somewhere between 70 Mbps and 1 Gbps, though actual speeds available commercially were much lower.
WiMAX is currently under the auspices of the WiMAX forum, a non-profit organization that oversees the advancement, adoption, compatibility, and interoperability of WiMAX technology. It provides certifications for devices, marking them as WiMAX compatible.
At its conception, WiMAX had the potential to replace DSL broadband internet by providing wireless connectivity that was cheaper and easier to setup. It also had the potential to become the standard used for 4G mobile network. In the latter case, it was superseded by the Long Term Evolution network (LTE), which is the current standard for almost all 4G services. In the former case, if mass adoption had taken place with device manufacturers installing receivers in laptops and phone, then it could have replaced DSL-provided broadband internet, WiFi, and CDMA and HSPA mobile networks. This did not happen, however.
But WiMAX is still in use and has many applications. As of 2015, US mobile carrier Sprint, UK-based Luminet, and providers in other countries still used WiMAX technology, the former as their carrier network for 4G service, and the latter as a broadband internet network. Sprint have been phasing out WiMAX, replacing it with LTE. Clearwire is a division of Sprint that offers widely distributed WiMAX internet networks in the US. WiMAX was the solution for many London businesses when a fire took down underground electrical cables in April 2015. The WiMAX network was already up and running, and connecting to it was a very quick and simple process. This prevented businesses from suffering due to loss of internet connectivity. In Australia, WiMAX networks were installed in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide to provide broadband internet access across the cities. Citizens were suffering from “black spots”, areas that were not covered by mobile signals, and WiMAX was a suitable solution to that problem. The Perth station cost $50 million, while the one in Adelaide, $15 million. An offshoot of WiMAX technology called WiGRID is used as the main network providing connectivity to the Smart Grid. WiMAX technology is also being used to provide connectivity in the aviation industry, connecting airports and aircraft through wireless broadband using the WiMAX-based Aeronautical Mobile Airport Communication System (AeroMACS). As of 2017, AeroMACS was utilized by more than 30 airports worldwide.
WiMAX is still used – as initially conceived – to provide broadband wireless internet connectivity to places where wired network infrastructures may be lacking, such as areas in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and even in the rural United States.
The emergence of the “Smart City” might rely heavily on a technology like WiMAX. In such cities, vehicles (buses, police cars, ambulances, trains), libraries, traffic management systems, utility management systems (water, gas, electricity, etc.), security and surveillance systems are all connected. This provides live data to ensure more efficient functioning of the city of tomorrow. It may not be as far away as we think, though. The cities of Sao Paolo and Aparecida in Brazil, and Taipei, Taiwan have successfully implemented city-wide connectivity. Satellites may replace WiMAX in providing internet connectivity in the near future. Companies like Google, SpaceX, O3B, and SES Networks are already launching units into orbit, some already launched and functioning. It remains unclear what the future will hold for WiMAX. The only thing we can be sure of is that the world is moving steadily into a period of interconnectivity unprecedented in the history of Mankind. It is a very exciting future to await.