Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

WiMax, an evolving standard for point-to-multipoint wireless networking, is poised to do for the last mile of broadband what Wi-Fi has done for the last 100 feet of networking.

Unlike other wireless technology standards, WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) covers several different frequency ranges. The IEEE 802.16 standard addresses frequencies from 10GHz to 66GHz, with the 802.16a specification adding coverage in the 2GHz-to-11GHz band. WiMax has a range of up to 30 miles, but most analysts think in practice it will be deployed in 10-mile cells. It can achieve shared data-transfer rates of up to 75 M bps on a single channel.

Of course, there’s nothing new about this. Proprietary point-to-multipoint microwave networks have been around since before 802.11 was a glimmer in a network engineer’s eye: I recall all too well standing on top of a building on a rainy day in the mid-’80s at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, trying to get a cranky, microwave-spawned T1 connection to work.

So why should we care now about what has been a niche broadband technology? What’s different is that WiMax, the commercial standardization of 802.16, should drop the price of wireless last-mile broadband to the point where there’s a mass market for it.

“From an operator’s standpoint, it gives them a standard that will lower the cost of equipment,” said Edward Rerisi, director of research for Allied Business Intelligence, in an interview in April. “Today, this is equipment [that] is very expensive …. A common standard should lead to a more competitive, and cheaper, marketplace.”

He said the market will grow enough that “equipment vendors will be able to sell more equipment, thus leading to more revenue for them.” And, he added, “Consumers are very thirsty for broadband.”

Equally important, from where I sit, is that the existing old-guard proprietary wireless microwave providers, such as Alcatel and Siemens, are jumping on the WiMax bandwagon, and Intel is putting its considerable resources behind WiMax. Intel is working with numerous partners, most noticeably Alvarion, a leader in last-mile broadband wireless access equipment, to deliver low-cost WiMax-certified equipment, based on Intel 802.16a silicon. If Intel gets its way, the laptops we buy in late 2005 will be both Wi-Fi- and WiMax-compatible.

Intel has said that it will deliver WiMax silicon by the end of 2004. Click here to read the full story.

If that happens, you can expect consumer demand for WiMax base stations to drive hotels, convention centers and airports to replace their limited-range Wi-Fi hot spots with longer-range WiMax hot spots.

Most WiMax advocates think that where WiMax will really fly is in areas where it’s just too expensive to bring in traditional last-mile broadband technologies or where business customers need fast Internet communications Right Now.

I agree that those are important markets, but those have always been the markets for wireless microwave broadband, and they have always been small markets. The equipment price drop will help in these areas, but the real opportunity, as I see it, is replacing and supplementing Wi-Fi. There are millions—tens of millions, actually—of potential customers that are learning to expect wireless broadband, and WiMax will make it easier than ever to give them instant-on networking over a broad area with only a few WiMax base stations instead of with hundreds of Wi-Fi access points.

When your customers look at the cost of providing the wireless net, I am absolutely sure that in 2005 we’re going to see demand begin to build for integrators and resellers that can provide WiMax-compatible equipment, network management and billing. Indeed, I expect the WiMax business to prove every bit as big as the Wi-Fi business has been.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is the editor of Channel Zone and has been covering the channel for more than a decade.