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What is WiMAX? Explained in simple terms.

For consumers looking to access the internet in the UK, there are already a number of different technologies available.  You can access the internet in your own home through a broadband connection, which could be either fixed line (meaning that you physically plug your computer into it) or wireless.  You could access on the move through a 3G connection using a 3G enabled phone, or you could access wirelessly wherever you are if you are in range of a Wi-Fi signal and have a device that is Wi-Fi enabled.  Services are often billed on either a monthly or a pay-as-you-go basis, sometimes with limits on how much downloading you can do in a period; the reason for these limits is to ensure fair access for everyone to what remains at present a limited service.

All of these technologies have their advantages and their disadvantages.  Home broadband is fast and easy to use, but there are often constraints on the volume of downloads you are allowed, which as more and more people wish to download video and music can become an issue.  Wi-Fi works well to connect users on the move, but still isn’t universally available, and many businesses such as hotels will charge quite expensive prices for access.  Using your 3G phone network is convenient, but the signal does not cover the entire country, and there can be reliability and stability issues accessing the internet from certain locations, such as inside a building, for example.  As more and more of the millions of people with 3G phones start to want to download video and audio across the mobile network, access will start to get slower, despite the plethora of new, faster 3G mobiles currently being made available to the public.

There are a number of new technologies being developed to help improve consumer and business internet access, and one of them is called WiMAX.  WiMAX actually stands for “Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access”, and is a new type of wireless high speed internet access technology with the potential to offer broad, reliable coverage.  In theory, WiMAX could potentially replace the need for 3G, 4G or other types of phone-based web access as well as Wi-Fi, and possibly even the need for a dedicated home broadband service.

WiMAX works on essentially the same principle as Wi-Fi – sending signals that can carry data wirelessly using radio waves.  However, Wi-Fi is constrained by a having a small field in which it is effective and the signal grows weaker as it has to pass through solid objects such as walls.  Wi-Fi is also still not widely available across the UK, with many non-urban areas having few publicly accessible Wi-Fi areas (or “hot spots” as they are often known).

WiMAX works a bit differently.  A WiMAX network requires a system of towers, very similar to the common mobile phone towers that we see currently spread across the country.  However, one difference is that WiMAX needs far fewer towers to be effective; one tower can potentially cover an area as large as 7,800 square kilometres (3,000 square miles), so the technology does not require the landscape to be dotted with more telecoms towers.

These towers would connect to the internet using a high speed wired link, and could also connect to each other wirelessly through a microwave link, meaning that just a few towers could easily cover a very large area.  This means that WiMAX would be a perfect solution to the problem of remote areas which at present struggle to receive any sort of broadband signal due to the expense of installing thousands of kilometres of cable, or many 3G phone towers.

The signal from these towers is then received by a user through a small antenna on their computer or phone from a transmitting station similar to a Wi-Fi hub, though the signal is better at getting through solid objects such as walls and trees than a Wi-Fi signal.  The tower can provide both a non-line of sight service, when there are solid obstacles between it and the receiver, or a direct line of sight service, which provides an even stronger and more stable signal, ideal for office use.

The major benefit of WiMAX is the significant range of access that the technology can provide to users.  Currently, standard Wi-Fi services usually have a range of less than 50 metres; a WiMAX antenna would be able to send data through a non-line of sight service up to eight kilometres (five miles) away; from a direct line of sight connection, signals could be received almost 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.  Signals should remain clear and strong for that distance, providing fast and reliable internet access from a significantly reduced infrastructure.  Internet access should also be measurably faster than it is across today’s Wi-Fi connections.

To access WiMAX at home, the idea would be that you buy a WiMAX enabled computer and then simply access the wireless signal in the same manner that you access wireless broadband or 3G services at present.  You would probably want to have an encryption key installed in the computer which would help to ensure that whatever you are doing on the internet remains private; others using the same WiMAX connection couldn’t see what you are doing, for example.

In the UK, WiMAX has been discussed for a number of years, and there are few small areas where the service is available, mostly in built up, highly populated urban areas, though plans for continued rollout would appear to be limited.  However, another alternative technology to 3G known as LTE appears to be more likely as the potential successor to the internet access we have today; LTE allows mobile operators such as 3 Mobile to make better use of the radio spectrum they own.  The upcoming auction of the part of the radio wave spectrum required for true 4G services is likely to see an expansion in this type of faster access rather than WiMAX, although it is likely that the two technologies will continue to co-exist for a number of years to come.


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