Monday, December 14, 2009

WiMAX: Why You Want It Right Now

As the subway train I’m on races through the white, almost gleaming tunnels of Seoul, I can hardly believe what I’m seeing on the lightweight Samsung netbook that sits on my lap: high-definition YouTube video files streaming with nary a hiccup or pixilation. Is it a dream? No, it’s a reality—in South Korea. This demonstration came courtesy of Samsung and South Korea’s remarkable WiMAX-based WiBro network. I’ll be honest: Until now, I hadn’t paid much attention to WiMAX. I knew it was supposed to be faster than current 3G broadband speeds, but I also understood that it was rolling out very, very slowly (and “rolling” would be a generous term). To date, our mobile expert, Sascha Segan, has been able to test WiMAX only in Baltimore. There’s also a competing 4G option, LTE, which isn’t in any U.S. markets currently, but 4G may ultimately have better traction than WiMAX, because of greater carrier support. My response to all this confusion and lack of deployment has been to ignore it until such technologies become a real option in the U.S. That was before my trip to South Korea.

Raising Expectations
I currently use two 3G options: AT&T’s HSDPA and Verizon’s EV-DO Rev A. They’re both okay, but I’m comfortable using them only for browsing simple Web sites, tweeting, checking e-mail, and downloading small files. These days, the networks feel like they’re choking from overuse. I figured this was probably as good as can be expected in the world of mobile broadband. I wrongly assumed that 4G would be like 3G albeit a bit faster, an incremental change that I really wouldn’t notice. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a hilly, densely populated metropolis with over 22 million people. It already has a reputation for broadband innovation. Roughly 90 percent of its population has broadband access, most of it thanks to fiber to the home. According to Hung Song, Samsung’s VP of global marketing for telecommunication systems, some pay roughly $35 per month for 100-Mbps download speeds. This is an unbelievable deal. South Koreans understand fast online access, and it’s only natural that they expect quite a bit from their mobile broadband experience.

Superior Signal, Even on the Subway
Back in Seoul’s subway system, I immediately began tweeting my experience and noted how quickly Twitter responded. “This seems fast,” I told my hosts. Before I got on the train, I surfed over to some lengthy You- Tube videos. One streamed smoothly as I stepped from the platform onto an arriving train. Next, I found a couple of HD videos on YouTube. All played almost perfectly (I noticed just the occasional throttling down on frame rate). As we whizzed by each stop, I kept expecting the WiBro connection to stutter as it hopped from base station to base station. That never happened. Eventually, I imagined myself riding the rails all day, enjoying speeds—4.3 Mbps down and 1.6 Mbps up—that rivaled entry-level home broadband in the U.S. I realized I also felt somewhat angry. The U.S. faces an uncertain future in the 4G space. Verizon and AT&T are pushing LTE 4G, while Clear is the leading proponent of WiMAX. Both should be fast, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hop from one network to another. Samsung execs told me they expect to support both fully, but that’ll most likely mean devices that are built for one network or the other.

Demanding More from Our Carriers
I doubt U.S. consumers even understand the mess they’re facing. Unlike South Korea, which seems to have settled on one type of mobile broadband for its most populous city, the U.S. will have two options— both claiming to be the fastest. That’s a shame. Now would be a good time for consumers to simply say no: “We don’t want competing platforms. Instead, give us one flavor of 4G and competing devices and service offerings. Most of us will be using 4G with our laptops, and we won’t switch them as readily as we do our phones. But we might switch carriers if we get a better deal or any perks. ” To be fair, the U.S. is nothing like Seoul. Our sprawling nation’s network of existing cell towers all have to be upgraded to support 4G networks. That takes time and manpower, an almost comical proposition, because companies like AT&T haven’t even finished upgrading all of their networks to 3G. Looks like it’s going to be a long time before anyone in the U.S. can share my experience. I’ll miss South Korea, but I think I’ll miss WiBro more.

Source of Information : PC Magazine 2009 11

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