The Future of Wireless Internet

Today in Atlanta, launched their marketing campaign for their WiMax, Microwave transmitted wireless technology to basically blanket the metropolitan area with Wireless Internet. About two weeks ago, my friend Brian and I had a debate about what the future of wireless is between Wifi and 3g and 4g networks.


3g is probably the technology that you\’ve heard about the most as Verizon and AT&T have networks that offer services on this version of mobile standard. Typically 3g networks can achieve about 1mbps down and 300kbps upstream bandwidth, but that\’s before we consider the internet applications – typically when you buy a data card from AT&T they will sell you a dual band card now that bridges two connections (and 3 has been mentioned) meaning that you can achieve 1.5mbps down and 500kbps up as long as you\’re near a 3g network (most major cities at this point and available 30 miles outside Tuscaloosa, Al where I did a streaming video link to North Carolina using one of these cards.)


Clearwire is one of the newer Macro technologies that was actually looked at about 5 years ago, long before 3g came out and was having some major success in \”last mile\” service for people outside DSL and Cable installation coverage areas. Today, clearwire is selling this as a mobile connection similar to 3g, but with greater speed. It\’s true, as a technology, WiMax (over microwave networks) has greater speed and line of sight range, at approximately a 3mbps limitation. I\’ve never used this service, but in research when I was looking at the technology, it seemed like a great idea for places without services, but less so when there are alternatives. Mobile computing (aka driving) should be really interesting as Microwave receivers tend to have longer switchover timings than say a cellular network — and microwaves technically require some sort of line of sight, more so than RF.


As I mentioned, a good friend and I had a discussion about the future or wireless, especially wifi as we know it today in the future when much more Macro/Mobile technologies will be rampant. As you know, wifi networks are a more local network designed for your business or house use. Wandering wifi sets up wireless networks at commercial stations (like the Chick-Fil-A I visit) so that customers can use wireless as they eat or sit around a restaurant. Wifi (802.11 is a much more micro technology with a range typically considered in < 1000ft but in fact with antennas can go several miles (directionally.)) Economically speaking, I believe that wireless has a long future ahead because every household simply can\’t afford to pay $55 a month per computer for internet, and it makes little economic, or branched security sense. In fact, wimax, 3g cards, and your local cable/dsl provider all encourage local area networks for sharing your connection at home. The limitation here will come as 4g comes out, unless magic happens with the limited 2.4ghz spectrum.

My questions on twitter today though involve how WiMax possibly feels like it can compete with 3g networks that have the huge advantage of cellular telephone subscribers to maintain market share and profits as they develop and role out new technologies. And what\’s the point of a mobile 3mbps network inside the area where land and 3g connections are numerous and high quality. Of course, maybe in deadlock traffic you could use your laptop,  but typically if you\’re driving most people are going to use their awesome new data phones. Then if I go out to eat, get coffee, whatever, I think I can live with either local wifi or succumb to the slower speeds of tethering my phone to my laptop (as soon as AT&T allows it.) And in the end of things, I\’d much rather have a slow edge backup as I leave to the mountains or country than nothing at all.

Why Speed Does not Matter

Like the power grid, the internet needs some updating badly.  All of these companies, ATT, Comcast, Clearwire are supporting connections with increasing speeds, Comcast is up to 16mbps.  With this 16mbps connection, which I know is true because if I download Linux from the nearby Georgia Tech or Virtual Box from Sun I get over 10mbps (3MB/S) but with most things that I download (the Linux Kernel even) I see only about 600KB/s on my download… or 1.8mbps. Sure that is definitely over the capabilities of a single 3g stream, but barely significantly. Besides, for streaming video, networks only need about 800kbps if they use a respectable codec like H264, Xvid, or the new HTML/5 OGG. When was the last time that you complained about downloading something at 100KB/S?

By the way Clearwire plans on pricing their metropolitan based network above comcast prices right near AT&T dual band 3g prices They do have a bundling option for home based phone service. I guess if you hate AT&T / Comcast because of their political issues (Net Neutrality / Warrant-less wiretapping) this gives you a good way to fight back.

By the way, as you\’ve heard Dan Hesse say on the T.V. commercials, Sprint is working on 4g in America which as a possible potential of 1gbps stationary, and 100mbps mobile… Blowing all of these current technologies out of the water.

Now I\’m hungry for that microwaved chicken sandwich.


Stephen Reid has a minor in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has worked with both wired and wireless network broadcasts (single cast and multi-cast) for applications involving streaming media and high throughput data, including on the University Internet 2.0 network. Stephen has also considered commercial applications for neighborhood wireless access points including using directional antennas to increase gain in the wireless reception.