Rob Ray investigates how a big-business ‘wireless revolution’ is set to retard urban communications technology for generations to come.
Major companies are set to introduce a broadband technology to keep control of telecommunications across the UK despite cheaper, more robust open systems being available.
Following a recent agreement over the introduction of a new global standard, WiMax is to begin testing in the UK for a nationwide roll-out possibly as early as next year.
But ‘media commons’ groups, operating community-based free systems, have already rejected WiMax as clumsy and unreliable compared to other available systems.
Sascha Meinrath, an expert in telecommunications technology, is involved in the Champaigne-Urbana community wireless project in Urbana, Illinois. The project has spent the last five years creating a free integrated open network for the community, with great success. He said: “There's a huge political-economic combine fighting to utilize this technology. Mainly, it's about money and profit margins.
“(Champaigne-Urbana) haven't rejected WiMax per se, but we're utilizing 802.11 (the Wifi frequency) because it's a set standard, one that we know works, one that is widely available, and one where devices are increasingly inexpensive.
“We have yet to see off-the-shelf WiMax devices, and most of the technological claims seem more hype than reality. We'll see how things develop, but for now, WiMax isn't even in the same ballpark as WiFi for DIY wireless.”
The WiMax broadband system, which would be designed to bypass phone lines through the use of ‘hub and spoke’ wireless transmission systems, has been hailed by major media groups as a massive technological leap forward. Hub and spoke systems rely on a base antenna set in the middle of a serviced area, which beams information to and from computers. The system however is severely limited by its reliance on ‘line-of-sight’ to maintain a strong signal. It is also extremely vulnerable, with whole areas being cut off should anything happen to the relay station. Finally, it is more expensive, as vulnerabilities and high maintenance costs are borne by end users.
‘Mesh’ wireless infrastructures offer multiple points of connection to the network without a central tower. Tiny Wifi relay stations and transmitters are placed around a given neighbourhood, and connect to the internet at multiple points. This network is cheap to construct, easy to expand and has none of the vulnerabilities of hub and spoke systems. The system is also potentially less harmful, as it requires lower signal outputs from any single base.
Mesh has been largely ignored by major manufacturers, as it is very difficult to build into a ‘proprietary’ (company-controlled) network. For community groups such as Champaigne-Urbana however it has proven a far better system than WiMax.
Sacha commented: “Wifi Mesh networks are cheaper to build, cheaper to maintain, have faster connectivity (especially within the community network itself), they’re more scalable, and more dynamic.
Sascha agreed however that WiMax could have uses in more rural areas of the UK. Suggesting where might benefit most, he said: “Rural areas and licensed service providers -- places where you want to cover large areas and don't have a lot of users. “WiMax can handle roughly 45MBps bitrate* on a channel -- so if you're talking about a coverage radius of 30 miles (which is touted by it's supporters) you're talking about 45MBps available over a roughly 2800+ square mile area... Clearly, this isn't something that'll work well in an environment with lots of users.”
The technology has been restricted to two major companies, Pipex and PCCW, who will, in conjunction with existing current providers such as BT, be looking to retain control of the lucrative telecommunications market. Pipex declined to comment on the rollout.
For more information on the divide between Wifi and WiMax, you can go to http://www.freepress.net/wifi.
* Some big businesses utilize similar levels of bandwidth individually.