Wireless Internet

Need an Italian restaurant recommendation while driving in Chicago? Want to check flight deals to Atlanta while watching your son’s soccer game in Tucson? Want to video conference with colleagues in Oslo while fishing in Florida?

Wireless broadband (or 4G) will eventually deliver all of that and everything else you do with the Internet at nearly any spot on the planet. But… what is it?

The simple answer is it’s a method of broadcasting an Internet connection over radio waves, allowing mobile devices like iPhones, Blackberries and laptops to connect to the Internet in the same way that cell phones connect to telephone networks.

Wireless broadband is really a broad term that represents many different technologies and can be a little bit complicated. We’re slicing through the clutter and providing some simple answers below.

Internet Everywhere

There are 2 big questions that seem to dominate any discussion about wireless broadband:

1. Is Wi-Fi considered to be wireless broadband?
2. Do cell phone companies already offer wireless broadband?”

The answers are “Yes” and “Yes”. Wi-Fi is absolutely wireless broadband because it meets the 2 qualifying requirements: (1) it’s wireless, and (2) it provides a high speed connection. But Wi-Fi has certain limitations that make it a poor solution for the true goal of wireless broadband, which is a concept we call “Internet Everywhere”. Internet Everywhere means, quite literally, that the Internet is accessible at truly broadband speeds from everywhere.

Wi-Fi (802.11) signals only work well over short distances like within a home. Even with high-powered antennas like those found on cell phone towers, a Wi-Fi signal does not travel well over great distances.

Since the goal of wireless broadband is Internet Everywhere (and not Internet Somewhere), Wi-Fi is not a good solution because it would require tons of closely spaced antennas to send the signals.

The answer to the second question is also a “Yes”. You can get “Internet Data Plans” from cell phone companies which provide an Internet connection using either (1) a connection card or “air card” that you insert into your laptop, or (2) an “Internet-ready” device like an iPhone, Blackberry or Amazon Kindle.

But like Wi-Fi, most of the current wireless broadband offered by cell phone companies has limitations that make it a poor solution for Internet Everywhere. In this case, the issue it’s speed: it’s faster than dial-up, but not as fast as DSL or Cable, and nowhere near the speeds of FiOS.

So Wi-Fi and current data access provided by cell companies can’t deliver Internet Everywhere, but there are 3 new technologies that can.

Delivering the Goods

The most difficult part of wireless broadband is having to sort through a ridiculous number of confusing acronyms. But there are really only 3 that will matter in the US when all is said and done:

WiMAX – Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access
LTE – Long Term Evolution
HSPA – High Speed Packet Access

WiMAX is really the signature technology in wireless broadband right now. It is a proven technology that has received the widest press and is already operational in many countries outside the US.

It will be the first 4G technology launched nationwide in the US when Sprint’s Xohm service goes live in September 2008. The Xohm network has other major corporate backers, including Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Bright House Cable, Google and Intel, so look for Xohm and WiMAX to be a major player in the wireless broadband space.

Xohm will feature 2-4 Mb/s download speeds and 1-2 Mb/s upload speeds, which would make it a legitimate alternative for cable and DSL users.

LTE is the most buzzed about technology, probably due to its truly eye-popping performance figures: 80 mb/s downloads and 50 mb/s uploads. But the technology is largely unproven outside of the lab, so it’s difficult to know what that real-world speeds will be.

But LTE is not purely fantasy: Verizon and ATT Wireless have announced that they will use it for their next generation networks, which they are currently building. Look for LTE to be available in 2010.

HSPA is interesting because it is a technology that is used right now by cell phone companies. It has always been slower than Cable and DSL access and thus was thought to be a dead end, but recent performance enhancements appear to have made it a viable technology for delivering Internet Everywhere. ATT has projected that their current HSPA network will have speeds up to 20 Mb/s sometime in 2009.

Keys to Wireless Broadband

– Where Do I Sign Up? – Just like with cable, DSL and now FiOS, the rollouts of these technologies will be phased, with different parts of the US getting access before others. None of these services are available yet, but check in here for the latest on who can get them and where.

– Bundle Madness – You may have noticed that the same companies currently offering service bundles (Verizon, ATT, Comcast, etc.) are also investing in wireless broadband. That means that 5 service bundles (cell phone, wireless broadband, TV, Internet and VoIP) will at some point be a reality. Check in here for the latest on wireless bundle deals.