The complete guide to WiMAX

The world at your fingertips.

That's the promise of WiMAX, a city-wide wireless technology that promises to make the internet available across wide swathes of a city or rural area.

Companies such as Sprint and Motorola in the US have been promising WiMAX for some time, and over the past few years it became a great wireless idea instead of a great wireless reality.

However, WiMAX is now ready to finally become a viable technology for laptop users. Here's what you need to know about WiMAX, including when it will be more viable and how it will work with your laptop.

What is it?

WiMAX is a broad term that means 'wide wireless access' across an entire city. It stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, although that's not too helpful.

There are two major versions of WiMAX: a fixed wireless system where a wireless signal is sent to a fixed modem, usually one that is installed at a company, as a way to provide high-speed internet access. The second version is mobile WiMAX, which connects to an adapter on your laptop and is lagging a little behind in terms of availability.

It's important to note that WiMAX was not originally intended to be a consumer technology, and started out as a technology that would work alongside Wi-Fi. Think of it as the power plant in your city – it's one way for a city to provide ubiquitous internet services for its citizens, but your laptop would still use Wi-Fi – a technology built into 98 per cent of laptops these days – for the so-called 'last mile' connection.

Service providers call this 'backhaul', in the sense that WiMAX provides the power required for thousands or even millions of people to access the internet without slowdowns and frustrations.

As more and more users connect, WiMAX provides a fat pipe that can handle the traffic in the same way that a powerful T1 or T3 line can handle a lot of traffic over a wired connection at a large company. Some companies in New York, for example, have been connected to private WiMAX networks for some time because it's a cheap way to provide a robust connection for many employees without installing expensive new wiring.

WiMAX has also become a popular technology in other countries, such as Pakistan, where laying fibre-optic cabling is much more difficult and expensive. This more commercial and industrial approach to WiMAX is not that interesting to laptop users – it's all behind the scenes, and there is no direct mobile connection. This version of WiMAX is called 'point-to-point' and it's been around for a few years.

Rolling out the technology

However, companies such as Sprint, Clearwire, Samsung, Motorola, Dell and Intel have a dramatically different vision of how WiMAX will work, one that is more consumer-focused, and this is the vision that is most interesting for mobile users.

In September 2008, Sprint introduced the first consumer implementation of WiMAX, which they call XOHM. The network, which is now running live in Baltimore, Maryland, is the first of its kind with a planned rollout to Chicago and Washington DC and other major cities over the next year or two.

It runs at speeds around 2–4Mbps – with an upload speed that's about half that fast – and stretches around Baltimore for about ten kilometres. Sprint calls it 'the hotspot that goes with you' and that's an accurate description because it runs at about the same speed as a Wi-Fi hotspot connection.

In reality, XOHM is a data-only cellular network that won't likely work with standard mobile phones anytime soon. It may eventually work with smartphones for data service, and Nokia is already planning devices that will support XOHM.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.