Putting WiMax to the Test

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While Sprint officially launches commercial WiMAX services for the first time in Baltimore this month, one college campus 30 miles to the south will be building its own mobile WiMAX network that will be used to test next-generation applications for mobile broadband services.

The James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland is deploying WiMAX nodes, routers, base stations and other equipment on its campus to create a large testing ground for next-generation mobile broadband capabilities. The lab, which is being built in collaboration with the industry group the WiMAX Forum, will give students the opportunity to test applications on a mobile broadband service that is not expected to be available in most of the United States until 2009. As one of only two WiMAX Forum labs in the world -- the other is in Taiwan -- expectations are high that it will spark a wave of innovation that will showcase WiMAX's strength as a mobile data standard.

Dr. Ashok Agrawala, a University of Maryland computer science professor who is directing the lab, says that most of the equipment is being provided by the Laboratory for Telecommunications Sciences, a federal research lab located on the campus. Much of the gear being deployed at the lab comes from Motorola, he says, including WiMAX base stations and antennae. Additionally, Agrawala expects device vendors to donate some WiMAX-enabled cell phones, PDAs and laptops to the lab, and that eventually the lab's network will support "at least 30 to 50 different devices" during experiments.

Agrawala says that once the lab is operational later this year, computer science students will start working on applications that will give everyone on campus instant access to crucial information such as class schedules, campus maps and schedules of events on campus. And that's not all: other applications in the works include real-time updates on the campus bus system, as well as updates on the nearby Washington, D.C., Metro system; dining hall menus; and even a public safety application that will send emergency signals directly to police once activated.

"With the public safety application, all you'll have to do is touch one button that will open up a window on the police dispatch," Agrawala says. "It will then open an audio and video screen so police can record the incident as it's happening."

WiMAX's potential to deliver high-speed public safety applications aren't limited to delivering messages in emergency situations. Another application that is being considered, Agrawala says, is a map application where students with disabilities can find all handicap-accessible entrances to buildings and where they can chart a course across campus that has the fewest slopes or the least amount of traffic.

Christian Almazan, a Ph.D student at the University of Maryland, says deploying WiMAX on campus will make it vastly easier to connect students to vital campus information quickly and reliably. And because WiMAX hotspots can cover miles of territory, WiMAX devices won't have the same problems as those that have to constantly hand off between hotspots to get coverage, he says.

"With WiMAX, it will be easier because you'll only need to have one device for accessing everything on campus," Almazan says. "We'll have three nodes deployed across the campus, which should cover the majority of the area. And if the signal doesn't go inside some areas, we can take advantage of the Wi-Fi capabilities we already have set up throughout campus."

The new applications will be running on a campus-based mobile platform called MyeVyu (pronounced "my view") that debuted earlier this year and specializes in supporting location-based mobile software applications. Agrawala eventually expects that this platform will be integrated into all campus laptops and devices, and that WiMAX will help the platform reach its potential to instantaneously deliver information to students and faculty.

"Our major attraction to WiMAX is its stability in terms of broadband capability," he says. "Our basic plan is to cover the campus first, and because WiMAX has such a longer reach than Wi-Fi, it's possible that the signal will be audible in the downtown areas near the campus. There's even a possibility that certain federal agencies might connect to us as well on a point-by-point basis."

Almazan says he is excited that he and fellow students will be working as pioneers in the WiMAX frontier, and he is enthused by WiMAX's potential to close the "digital divide" between urban and rural areas in the United States.

"The best part of this project is simply playing with a brand-new wireless technology that will potentially penetrate the entire United States," he says. "It will enable rural communities to have Web access with tremendous ease."

This story, "Putting WiMax to the Test" was originally published by Network World.

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