Wifi vs. WiMax

Updated: April 30, 2009

It's no secret that wireless Internet access is growing at a furious pace in urban and suburban America, not to mention the rest of the world. Not only are residences and businesses steadily shifting towards wireless networks for ease of access and cost savings, but free wireless hotspots are popping up all over as commercial venues like cafes, hotels and even restaurants realize that wireless Internet access is becoming a fundamental customer requirement. In fact, it is almost requisite that service-oriented businesses have wireless available for their customers if they are going to compete.

Municipalities are even getting involved, with cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia investing in large-scale wireless networks that will potentially blanket the entire city, providing free wireless Internet access to all residents and visitors and allowing them to surf the Internet from such formerly implausible locations as parks, the bus, or even the beach.

The basic standard for this technology is WiFi. WiFi is primarily used to create a Local Area Network (LAN), which allows users within the network to connect wirelessly. The commonest use is primarily in Internet connectivity, but WiFi is also used for closed-circuit business networking and for connecting consumer electronics, such as TVs and DVD players. WiFi makes connecting to the Internet within a home or business cheap and easy, and it also allows commercial and service venues to provide wireless access to customers and the greater public, within a relatively small service area.

But while WiFi technology has proved largely successful in providing cheap wireless Internet service within close proximity to the WiFi access point, a new technology, WiMax, could expand the potential of wireless penetration and connection quality. Because of the similarity in name, it is easy to assume that WiMax is simply a more refined and more powerful form of WiFi, and one that will render WiFi irrelevant in the near future. This is partly true - WiMax does provide wireless reception over significantly greater distances, and at higher broadband levels. But the technology behind WiMax is significantly different from WiFi, as well as more costly, and most analysts agree that WiFi will continue to be the standard in the near future.

WiFi was created in Norway in 1991, and was originally designed for commercial cash register systems. Today, its provides wireless broadband access to any user with wireless connectivity technology, or wireless adapter cards, within a small range. Typically, a WiFi signal has a maximum range of 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors.

WiMax serves several functions in wireless connectivity, but it was largely created to provide "last-mile" broadband connection to homes and businesses. Instead of using fixed lines like cable or telephone line to bring Internet access into a building, WiMax uses transmitters, like cell-phone towers, to carry its signal. WiMax technology does not require line-of-sight to the user, so several subscribers can connect to a tower, even if it is blocked by trees or other buildings. This makes WiMax particularly useful and cost-effective for rural homes and other locations set in a geography that would make laying a traditional hardwire difficult and expensive.

WiMax has a much greater range than WiFi, although interpretations of this range vary. While engineers have stated that WiMax could have a range of up to 30 miles, field tests have resulted in a range radius of between four and eight miles. Still, this represents a range far greater than the few hundred foot radius of WiFi.

WiMax also has some benefits over WiFi in terms of connection quality. When multiple users are connected to a WiFi access point, they are effectively in constant battle for connection, and users can experience varying levels of broadband width. WiMax technology, however, secures each user with a constant allotment of broadband access. Built into the WiMax technology is an algorithm that establishes a limit to the number of users per WiMax access point. When a WiMax tower is nearing its maximum broadband capacity, it automatically redirects additional users to another WiMax access point.

But WiMax is still in its infancy, and will need a significant boost in support and infrastructure before it gains any traction in the wireless market. WiFi, on the other hand, has already saturated a significant percentage of the wireless market, and it has proved both easy to use and cheap. While businesses with large physical space might want to move to WiMax to avoid buying the many repeater access points required with WiFi, it will be several years before WiMax becomes cheap enough to enter the residential and small commercial market.

In short, WiMax technology promises a future of more powerful and more accessible wireless Internet access. For the meantime, however, WiFi will be the mainstay.

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