Ern Worthman, Technology and Editorial Director

Just when you thought it was safe to dip your laptop in the Wi-Fi waters, along comes the next iteration of not quite so short-range, unlicensed 802.xx wireless interconnect.

We've been hearing about 802.16 for a while now, but the last few months have seen this technology push to the forefront, in terms of product promotion, with promises of commercially available product early in 2004. To me, that's significant because it has the potential to translate into real dollars.

The 802.16 standard, also known also as the air interface for fixed broadband wireless access systems, the IEEE WirelessMAN air interface, WiMax, and will likely show up as any number of other marketing-promoted brand names, is designed from the ground up to provide broadband wireless access in wireless wide, local and metropolitan area networks (W-W/L/MANS). WiMax promises to deliver performance comparable to traditional cable, DSL, or even T1 and raises the unlicensed wireless interconnect bar an order of magnitude — sign me up!

What caught my eye with this standard is the " from the ground up " part — meaning that this technology isn't just an upgrade to the Wi-Fi technology, It is a smarter, faster, more robust cousin. It not only offers the ability to improve on the loading limitations of the " and " technology, in similar applications, but also to develop a whole new slew of short to medium range applications.

Driven by the success of home and business WLANs and commercial hotspots (as much as I hate to admit I'm hooked on double-strength, espresso-based skinny, macho, caramel macchiato with sprinkles while wireless Internet-ing at Starbucks hotspots) based on the IEEE 802.11 standard, the 802.16 technology offers cautious optimism for new interconnect schemes. This proliferation of such WLAN technology has the end user's appetite craving high-speed, ubiquitous broadband connectivity to the Internet 802.16 has the potential to deliver with outdoor, longer-range connection back to the service provider, in whatever application — that's significant.

This capability is seen as an aperture for new, economically viable market opportunities for a wide range of businesses including operators, wireless Internet service providers (WISPs), and equipment manufacturers. Of particular interest is the fact that systems built upon the 802.16 standard represent an easily deployable third pipe or tunnel, capable of delivering flexible and affordable last-mile broadband — something that has seen a lot of talk, but little action.

What makes this technology even more tempting is that in January of 2003, the IEEE approved the 802.16a standard that covers frequency bands between 2 and 11 GHz. These sub-11 GHz frequency ranges can be used for non line-of-sight installations for last-mile applications where obstacles like trees and buildings can impede signal paths and where base stations may need to be unobtrusively mounted on the roofs of homes or buildings rather than towers on mountains (this standard is an extension of the 802.16 standard for 10 to 66 GHz, published in April of 2002).

There is a slew of applications that should have the wireless industry taking a hard look at this. Among them are:

• Cellular backhaul: Only about 20 percent of cellular towers are backhauled wirelessly in the U.S. The robust bandwidth of 802.16a technology makes it an excellent choice for back-haul for commercial enterprises such as hotspots as well as point-to-point backhaul applications.

• Best-connected wireless service: When users are outside the range of the nearest hotspot. The IEEE 802.16e extension to 802.16a introduces nomadic capabilities that allow users to connect to a WISP, even when they roam outside their home or business, or go to another city that also has a WISP.

• Broadband on-demand: Last-mile broadband wireless access (BWA) can help to accelerate the deployment of 802.11 hotspots and home/small office wireless LANs. Additionally, and this isn't news, but older buildings in metropolitan areas often present a wireline challenge for wired broadband connections to tenants. 802.16a wireless technology enables a service provider to provision service with speed comparable to a wired solution.

•Residential broadband: DSL can only run out about 5 km from the central office switch and older cable networks are not equipped to provide a return channel. Converting these networks to support high-speed broadband can work either cable deployment or additional switch/infrastructure build-out. As for the current generation of proprietary wireless systems, they are relatively expensive for mass deployments because, well, they are without a standard so few economies of scale are possible. Standards-based 802.16 and non-LOS 802.16a solutions with high bandwidth, inherent flexibility and low cost will overcome traditional wired and proprietary wireless technology limitations.

Well, if you believe the hype (most of these applications are still wishful thinking, but the potential is there) this sounds like another panacea to the doldrums that we've been suffering through for the last couple of years. But I (and most of us) have heard this time and again, and the industry has gotten pretty smart about what is real and what is "vapor-opportunity." In my opinion, this is a technology that has a lot of potential. We'll see if indeed we have product next year. If so, and the demand for such wireless connectivity continues to evolve, this should be one of the larger pieces that is slowly rebuilding the wireless puzzle.