The big question on the lips of most people interested in wireless broadband services is: do they perform as well as landline services? The answer is yes and no.
Tests of the Unwired and iBurst services soon after their release showed performance that lived up to specifications. If you had a 1Mbps connection, you actually got very near to 1Mbps throughput. However, the services are still quite new, and their potential to scale is the real question.
In a sense, wireless broadband is a shared medium - there's only so much radio spectrum to go around, and you're sharing it with everybody else who's in the same area as you, accessing the same cell. As the number of wireless subscribers increase, there's going to be less bandwidth available per person, especially at peak times. This is true, of course, of all Internet access media, but for wireless broadband it's a difficult problem to solve. With landlines, a service provider can simply increase the bandwidth capacity of the cables that make up the network core; with wireless they can increase the number of receiving stations or purchase more radio spectrum, but a question mark still remains over the ability of the long-range wireless services to scale to hundreds of thousands of users running at high speeds.
The other key issue, from a performance perspective, is the latency of wireless services. Latency, sometimes called "ping times," is a measure of the responsiveness of the network -- usually measured in milliseconds. Where bandwidth measures how much traffic a link can handle, latency is a measure of how long it takes a single message to get to its destination.
For the most common Internet applications - web surfing, downloading, email - latency is not a big issue. However, it's a huge issue with real-time applications such as online gaming, video conferencing and Voice over IP. With real time applications, delays in transmission are unacceptable. For Voice over IP, latencies in excess of 250ms will start to make a phone call very painful.
Early testing has showed that existing wide-area wireless broadband services do not perform well in terms of latency. Practical tests have shown that you can expect latencies of around 70ms-200ms for Australian sites, and 250ms+ to US and other international sites. By contrast, with ADSL those numbers are more likely to be closer to 20-50ms in Australia, and 200ms+ for the US. If you're a heavy online gamer or plan on using VoIP services, we recommend sticking with land lines for now, however this will change very soon.
The future: WiMAX
At the moment, the major wireless service providers are using proprietary technologies to deliver data to users. That is set to change in the near future with the impending ratification of the IEEE 802.16e standard, a.k.a. WiMAX.
WiMAX works much like the current Navini and IntelliCell technologies. Local aerials act as wireless access points covering a very large area. Each access point, or cell, can cover an area of 3 to 10km in radius, so relatively small numbers of them could blanket an entire city.
It's unclear at this stage what kinds of speeds the introduction of WiMAX will offer the end-user. Up to 40Mbs is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely. In practice we expect that the introduction of WiMAX will prompt service providers to offer speeds of 2Mbs or more. It will also reduce the cost of the modems, since they will be standards-based and not proprietary, and it's likely that many new notebooks will actually have 802.16e capabilities built in.
Depending on the implementation, WiMAX can deliver mobile (as opposed to portable) services, although these may be at reduced speeds.
WiMAX is expected to be certified this year, and Unwired has plans to implement WiMAX in its network once the standard is ratified.
Wireless Broadband Buying Guide 3
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26 October 2005
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