Thanks to an emerging wireless technology known as WiMax, students at the Instituto Agropecuario de Monte in Buenos Aires, Argentina, now can use the internet for research in their classrooms–and from locations in the countryside several miles away.

This rural agricultural school–90 miles outside the Argentine capital–is one of the first active test sites for WiMax, a wireless broadband technology that reportedly can broadcast a wireless internet signal over several miles without needing a clear line of sight. Proponents of the technology say it will be instrumental in helping communities realize their vision of ubiquitous wireless connectivity–but skeptics point out there’s a long way to go before that happens.

“WiMax is definitely changing how we do education,” said Maria del Carmen Villar, the school’s director, during a demonstration of the technology last month. For the demonstration, del Carmen Villar’s image was streamed over the internet to attendees of the Intel Developer Forum conference in San Francisco.

The demonstration showed WiMax can fulfill at least some of the many promises made over the years.

It’s been hyped as an affordable way to bring the internet to poorer and rural regions around the world, break the broadband duopoly of cable and telephone companies, and eventually cover entire countries with seamless, high-speed internet access for viewing video, making phone calls, and completing other data-intensive tasks.

Trouble is, despite years of promises, WiMax has yet to move beyond trials and carefully scripted demonstrations, including those at the Intel Developer Forum.

Skeptics question whether all the promises can be fulfilled and suggest that other technologies can solve the same problems sooner.

“Any new technology that comes out takes a while before it either fails or becomes broadly established. In that period, people can say it’s been overblown,” said Sean Maloney, general manager of the mobility group at Intel Corp., one of WiMax’s biggest cheerleaders. “I don’t think that applies to WiMax.”

WiMax–short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access–is expected in two flavors. The first, known as fixed wireless, is similar to the wireless standard known as Wi-Fi, but on a much larger scale and at faster speeds. A nomadic version would keep WiMax-enabled devices connected over large areas, much like today’s cell phones.

Supporters say WiMax would complement and not compete with existing technologies such as Wi-Fi, the wireless networking technology now available through countless hotspots in schools, parks, coffee shops, airports, and other locales around the world.

While Wi-Fi typically provides local network access for a few hundred feet with speeds of up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps), a single WiMax antenna is expected to have a range of up to 40 miles with speeds of 70 Mbps or more.

As such, WiMax can bring the underlying internet connection needed to service local Wi-Fi networks.

The fixed wireless thrust of WiMax allows some portability within hotspots, but its main focus is on bypassing the last mile of wires that’s been critical in connecting people to the internet. Today, that has mostly been the domain of telephone and cable companies that have existing connections to homes, businesses, and schools.

Still, even its supporters say WiMax isn’t likely to displace DSL or cable broadband services anytime soon. Rather, Maloney said, its biggest impact is where that infrastructure does not yet exist.

That was the case at the Argentine school, which was simply too remote for regular broadband. In fact, the country has been far behind the rest of the world in high-speed internet access, said Ignacio Nores, marketing manager at Ertach, the Argentine service provider running the WiMax trial.

Maloney said the initial deployments of WiMax will largely be in fast-growing, emerging market economies.

Progress is being made. Late last year, a standard was approved. Now, the WiMax Forum, which will certify various vendors’ offerings for interoperability, counts 343 companies as members and has started testing products expected for release next year.

By standardizing the technology, supporters hope to create a flurry of competition among vendors, driving down prices and preventing a single company from dominating, said Charles Golvin, a Forrester Research analyst.

The number of trials has ballooned to more than 100, up from 50 just months ago.

One of these trials, in Georgia’s Houston County (see story: “Schools could thrive in completely wireless county“), proved promising–but local officials say the project is on hold while they look for the funding needed to continue it.

“We conducted a feasibility study and deployed a pilot network that was up for a very short period,” said Matt Stone, chief architect of the initiative, which Houston County officials undertook in partnership with Intel Corp. and Siemens AG.

“We were able to transmit service 11.5 miles and receive 6.8 megabits [per second] of throughput,” Stone said. “It worked very well.”

But Stone said the feasibility study also found it would be impossible for the local government to raise the $700,000 to $800,000 necessary to fund the project itself.

When eSchool News first reported on the county’s WiMax project back in 2003, it was projected to have a total cost of $2 million. But the cost of the technology has come down since then, according to Stone.

Other roadblocks remain, however, including the lack of international agreement on what part of the wireless spectrum to use. For now, some WiMax trials have been using unlicensed frequencies, but interference could downgrade performance–a big turnoff for major companies running critical applications.

“You don’t have any legal recourse against people who are essentially interfering with your service,” Golvin said.

WiMax’s roaming thrust faces even greater challenges. Ratification of the standard isn’t expected for up to two months, and testing of equipment isn’t expected until at least 2007.

To seamlessly cover large areas, WiMax has to gain the support of large carriers–including cellular phone operators that have invested billions of dollars in other technologies known as 3G, or third generation.

“It’s a wonderful technology on paper, but in reality you need the service providers–the Vodafones, the Cingulars around the world–to do something,” said Michel Mayer, chief executive of Freescale Semiconductor Inc., which was spun off last year from cell phone maker Motorola Inc.

For either flavor of WiMax, Golvin said, there’s still the question of how far is the gap between the promise and the real-world delivery.

But carriers are careful not to completely discount WiMax.

“We do think it’s an interesting technology and concept, but there are no plans to deploy,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. “WiMax is the step beyond a twinkle in an engineer’s eye.”

Links:

WiMax Forum
http://www.wimaxforum.org

Intel WiMax
http://www.intel.com/netcomms/technologies/wimax