WiMAX vs WiFi

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I spoke last week at First Tuesday in Johannesburg. Read ITWeb’s coverage here.

Ironically, on the very same day that I say that we won’t be seeing WiMAX on consumer devices for a long time to come, Nokia decides to release the WiMAX enabled N810 Tablet PC. Note, however, that there is no actual WiMAX network you can use it with, yet.

Here are my speaker notes:

WiFi vs WiMax vs 3G

I’d like to talk briefly about how WiFi is positioned in relation to WiMax and 3G, from the perspective of an end-user.

Firstly, a brief overview of 3G and why it’s not sufficient in itself.

3G is the main technology being touted by Vodacom, MTN and other mobile networks around the world.

3G is a data transfer technology that is essentially an enhancement of GSM. The good thing about this is that we already have a large GSM network available. And even though 3G speeds might not be available across the country, you can use the same 3G phone or 3G data card to access the internet via GPRS, which you’ll find even in Pofadder and many nearby farms where there is no ADSL service.

The bad thing is that it suffers the same limitations. In the same way that Dial-Up internet is limited by the telecoms network!

Who could tell me what day in the year sees the most telephone calls being made?

(Mother’s Day).

The moment that you have a lot of voice traffic, data traffic simply gets sidelined. So although 3G is a convenient and highly ubiquitous service, it’s simply going to suffer a massive coronary during the World Cup. The data access needed by millions of people phoning home and uploading millions of photos per match to Facebook and Flickr is simply beyond the reach of 3G technology.

This answers the question: Why WiMax?

It is clear that a better technology is needed than 3G broadband.

But now that we know that 3G is not going to work, the question becomes: Is WiMax going to work?

The idea of WiMax is great: Cheap, High – Speed, Long Range.

However, in practice it compromises on these in one way or the other.

Although WiMax IS capable of high speeds, it can only deliver high speeds at short ranges.

And although it can deliver data at long range, it can now only do so at really slow speeds!

And WiMax is definitely NOT cheap, with a base station costing north of a R100,000!

However, even if you could solve these problems, by having 100s of government sponsored WiMax base stations per square kilometre, the problem is fundamentally still the availability of consumer devices.

The closest thing we have to WiMax on the market is iBurst’s wireless service. As you know this involves a funky orange modem (show modem) that needs to be plugged into a wall and that costs R2000 to buy.

WiMax consumer equipment is much the same. It’s bulky, expensive and very power hungry. This means we won’t be seeing WiMax built into consumer devices any time soon.

And once we do, we’re going to find that WiMax is being implemented on different frequencies by different providers. So a WiMax device you buy from MWEB, for example, will not work on a WiMax network provided by, say, WebAfrica.

At the end of the day, WiMax is a bunch of hot air, and I don’t think we should spend any time planning government funded initiatives for providing rural access until the technology itself is proven.

So what we’re really left with is WiFi.

The reason we chose WiFi as a technology is because of its open nature. Anyone can build WiFi equipment that is compatible with all other WiFi equipment.

The really great thing about WiFi as a technology, as opposed to 3G or WiMax is that it is already built into a multitude of devices.

Besides for laptops and Macbooks, WiFi is also built into Smartphones, iPhones, the new iPod Touch and even Refrigerators and Washing machines.

It is an inexpensive and robust technology.

However, it’s openness is also its curse. There is no way for Vodacom to tie you into a WiFi service, thus they haven’t really put resources into promoting it.

As a result we have lots of small players providing vastly different service levels at very different price levels.

This is starting to change, and very soon you’ll be able to use a single, automated login, to connect to WiFi hotspots around the country.

It won’t be long before your streetlamps get upgraded to provide WiFi access.

The greatest thing is that you won’t need to upgrade your phone or buy an expensive wireless modem to access it. Simply use your iPod!

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