Wi-Fi Now, WiMAX Later

By Ed Rubinstein • Contributing Editor | July 01, 2006

The breadth and use of wireless data networks within hotel rooms and their common areas continues to flourish, as are the range of available technologies and the number of service providers. Wi-Fi wireless access has been viewed as a "giveaway" for operators even though it is oftentimes subsidized by the room charge. Now enter WiMax, the recently ratified wireless standard that is backed by such behemoths as Motorola, Nokia, and Intel.

WiMAX can offer both fixed (802.16) and mobile access (802.16e) over the same infrastructure, which gives it an advantage over other protocols like HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, also referred to as 3.5G). This means easier adoption by hoteliers and continuous broadband Internet access for end-users at home, work or in between. According to a report from Senza Fili Consulting, there will be 15.4 million WiMAX subscribers worldwide by 2010.

Every since the 802.11 wireless spec was born almost ten years ago, many hoteliers around the country have provided free Wi-Fi service to their guests. So how will the WiMAX standard affect traditional Wi-Fi offerings? Not much, as the ranks of traditional Wi-Fi installs continue to swell and industry observers note that it comes down to preferential choice, reliability and even enhanced security.

"ItÃ.Ã.•¬Ã.•.s all about choice now,", states Jerry Grasso, director of corporate communications for Earthlink (earthlink.net). "Lets say you are at a Hyatt in Philadelphia, you might want to use the hotelÃ.Ã.•¬Ã.•.s service, but if you are in the Philly area for four days, you now have options. I have four different networks I can get on at home." The Internet service provider has recently won a number of municipal contracts to provide Wi-Fi, most recently for the city of New Orleans.

As with its Chicago, Anaheim contracts, Earthlink will provide a limited time free service tier, during the Crescent CityÃ.Ã.•¬Ã.•.s post Katrina rebuilding efforts, and a paid one at speeds up to 300kbs. Grasso points to the premium service as having stronger signals than other Wi-Fi offerings in that Earthlink citywide deployments have on average 36 radios per square mile versus 14 radios per square mile for others. Earthlink will install Wi-Fi routers on light poles throughout the city that come from Tropos Networks (tropos.com) and use Tropos software to configure, monitor, and maintain the network, along with Motorola (motorola.com) backhaul and network equipment.

And when it comes to other Wi-Fi spots, the proposed New Orleans solution requires only one of three available 802.11b/g channels, according to Grasso, and includes what he referred to as an "interference management system" that informs Earthlink when and where it is advisable to change channels to reduce contention with other wireless systems.

But hoteliers do not need to press any panic buttons yet. The WiMAX standard is fresh out of the box and indoor coverage has been an achilles heel to date. Also, WiMAX handsets are not likely to be introduced before 2010, at which time the technology would be most useful for laptops, PDAs, and other mobile devices. Such next-generation devices will also allow users to roam between Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and HSDPA networks at will.

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