WiFi Mesh v. WiMax

All hail WiMax, we await you to lead us unto broadband heaven.

In case you haven't been subjected to the hype yet, WiMax (aka 802.16), is the next generation wireless technology which is supposed to extend the range and the speed of today's technology by orders of magnitude. People talk about being able to cover a 30 mile radius with one WiMax access point.

This sounds pretty good to me, particularly for places like Malawi whose wired infrastructure is decades behind the rich countries. It is the ultimate leapfrog technology - one access point in a rural town in Africa would bring communication infrastructure rivaling anywhere in the world.

The promises are huge and have been around for a long time, but I can't just go to Fry's and pick up a WiMax access point and a card. In fact I can't buy the stuff from anywhere. The reasons I have heard include: they are still refining the specification, no one has proven the technology with a real world deployment, politics are holding it back, and the price is still too high. I wish I knew the answer, but I do know that I am getting tired of waiting.

Which brings me back to my vision of wireless meshes. Wireless mesh networks built with WiFi (802.11) exist, are cheap and have already been proven to work. Covering a 30 mile radius with WiFi would probably be beyond its limits, but covering a couple square miles is definitely manageable and wouldn't require much hardware. I would liberally estimate about 4 APs per square mile - so at $50 for a WRT54G, this means $200 per square mile.

Perhaps WiMax will swoop in and deliver all that has been promised, but until then I think we can do a lot with WiFi meshes. By the way, I am in the middle of Cory Doctorow's latest book - Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town and it is excellent and a significant subplot is all about building an open wireless mesh in Toronto. Great stuff!

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