Wednesday, October 22, 2008

WiFi on Steroids

Last year I mentioned in one of my weekly columns that I was following the development of a new technology that could have significant impact on how and where we connect to the Internet. That technology is called WIMAX and earlier this month the first major installation began operation in parts of Baltimore, MD.

Most of us know about WiFi, a related technology for wirelessly hooking up to an Internet connection without the use of wires. Most offices and many private homes have installed WiFi connections as have many coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and libraries. You can even sit on a park bench in Garfield Park in downtown Cincinnati and answer email and surf the web wirelessly with the free WiFi connection offered there.

One big limitation of WiFi is that the “signal” can only be transmitted over very short distances, often less than a few hundred feet. So, while this technology is great if you are sitting at a table drinking coffee, it does not work while on the move in car, bus or train. Also, unlike cell phones, the WiFi cells or “spots” are very limited in coverage.

You can think of WIMAX as WiFi on steroids. The coverage area of one WIMAX cell can be measured in square miles rather than in square feet. As a result, an entire city or county can be covered by a few high powered WIMAX transmitters.

A combination of advances in technology and the recently freed up radio spectrum have made WIMAX, a technology long confined to the laboratory, a viable commercial product that should help feed our insatiable appetite for mobile computer access and advanced communication.

Now I am sure that you would agree that the prospect of commuters on I-74 answering email on their laptop while driving 70 mph on the way to work is hardly a benefit to society, if we look a bit deeper we will find several other more valuable applications.

Cars with WIMAX capability could transform the way we listen to the radio. Since most major radio stations in the US provide their programming on the Internet, these stations can now be listened to anywhere. If you want to hear Marty lament another Reds loss, you could listen to WLW 700 while driving on a Los Angeles freeway.

As more and more cars are controlled by computers, software updates could be downloaded to your car’s innards without a stop at the dealer service shop. While some of this happens now using the mobile phone network, the WIMAX bandwidth is exponentially greater than what is possible via cell phone.

For public service personnel there are some tremendously exciting possibilities. The transfer of medical information to first responders could save lives. The ability for firefighters to access databases of information about a specific building or neighborhood while en route to an emergency situation has long been a dream. It may soon be common place.

WIMAX is only one of several technologies that are coming to market that will continue to allow us to “cut the cord” and wirelessly connect to our world regardless of place and time. This is a good thing as long as we remember that we can and should periodically turn it off .

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