Mobile Computing: What's Next for Wireless?

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Feature: What's Next for Wireless?

Imagine surfing the Internet wirelessly on your notebook--at blazing speeds--while riding a high-speed bullet train. Or zipping down the highway (as a passenger, I hope), checking the traffic situation ahead on a wireless-enabled PDA with a super-fast connection. Or making a Wi-Fi broadband connection even though you're miles away from the nearest hot spot.

Well, guess what? Someone else has already imagined these scenarios. And the wireless broadband technologies designed to make them happen are in the works. Here's a briefing on next-generation wireless technologies and what they may mean to you.

WiMax: Wi-Fi Successor

What's the Big Deal? With a broadcast range of 25 to 30 miles, WiMax's geographic reach promises to be far superior to today's IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi. For instance, the currently ubiquitous Wi-Fi wireless networking standard, the basis of many commercial wireless hot spots such as those at McDonald's and Starbucks, has a range of up to 300 feet (but often more like 150 to 200 feet).

What's the Technology? WiMax refers to a family of standards known as IEEE 802.16. The 802.16a and subsequent 802.16-REVd standards (a consolidation of 802.16, 802.16a, and 802.16c) are designed to broadcast broadband Internet access to stationary wireless base stations. An extension to those standards, 802.16e, adds data mobility that makes it possible to beam broadband connections to moving objects, such as a notebook with a WiMax modem on a laptop used by a train passenger.

When Will It Be Real? Products based on the stationary 802.16 standards are expected to appear in early 2005. Devices supporting the 802.16e standard for mobile users aren't expected until late 2006.

What's the Bottom Line? With Intel as one of its biggest champions, WiMax has strong industry support and lots of momentum. It's widely expected to be the successor to today's Wi-Fi. But mobile users won't benefit from WiMax for at least another two years.

For more info, read "Will Wireless Broadband Go WiMax?" or visit the WiMax Forum's Web site.

Mobile-Fi: Broadband on the Run

What's the Big Deal? Mobile-Fi, also known as Mobile Broadband Wireless Access (or MBWA), promises broadband Internet access at speeds even faster than Digital Subscriber Line, cable, and potentially WiMax, and at ranges of up to 9.5 miles or more. Unlike WiMax, Mobile-Fi can deliver broadband Internet access to users traveling at speeds up to 155 miles per hour. Thus, Mobile-Fi could be the ideal technology for notebook-carrying, high-speed train commuters.

What's the Technology? Mobile-Fi/MBWA is the nickname for the IEEE 802.20 specification.

When Will It Be Real? Not until 2006.

What's the Bottom Line? Flarion Technologies and Navini Networks are among the companies involved in developing the 802.20 standard. But industry support hasn't been as consistently strong for 802.20 as it has been for WiMax. Also, WiMax products for mobile users are expected to appear before 802.20-based devices, potentially giving WiMax a further edge. But anything could happen between now and 2006, so I wouldn't underestimate Mobile-Fi's chances.

Last year, PC World's Yardena Arar tested wireless high-speed Internet access from Navini Networks. Read "DSL Speeds, Cellular Coverage" for details.

Ultra Wideband: Short-Range Data Transfer

What's the Big Deal? UWB promises super-fast transfer rates of up to 480 megabits per second between nearby devices such as a desktop PC and a digital camcorder. UWB could become the high-speed successor to Bluetooth, the limited-range personal area network standard that has yet to really take off; and it could be seen as a kind of wireless version of FireWire and USB 2.0. But UWB's fastest rates only work within 3 feet. At 30 feet away, data transfer rates drop to about 110 mbps.

What's the Technology? UWB is the user-friendly name for the IEEE 802.15.3a proposed wireless standard. Currently, there are competing specifications for the standard. In one corner is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the standards-setting organization behind many technology specifications. In the other is the MultiBand OFDM Alliance (or MBOA), whose members include Intel, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, and Sony.

When Will It Be Real? It's expected that all legal and technical issues should be resolved by year's end. UWB devices such as digital cameras should begin appearing by mid 2005.

What's the Bottom Line? UWB may be a convenient, cordless way to transfer video and digital camera pictures to your PC. But it doesn't look to be as promising for broadband Internet connectivity on the go as WiMax, Mobile-Fi, and cellular networks.

For more about UWB, read "Intel Boosts Ultra Wideband."

In the Mean Time...

If you don't want to wait, you may be able to get a broadband wireless connection now. Cell phone companies are already rolling out third-generation networks offering speedy wireless Internet connections for smart phone and notebook users.

For instance, Verizon Wireless is currently pushing a 3G network service called EVDO in Washington, D.C. and San Diego; it will add nearly 100 more markets by year-end 2005. At $80 a month, though, Verizon's price is steep for anyone except hard-core business travelers. For more details, read "Verizon Wireless Expands 3G Service."

Call for Cool Hot Spots

Speaking of wireless networking, do you know of a truly offbeat, cool, public wireless hot spot? If so, tell me about it, and send a picture if possible.

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