Will WiMAX Bridge the Digital Divide?

When WiMAX was just a geek buzzword seven years ago, people predicted that the successor to Wi-Fi would eventually bridge the digital divide. Baltimore recently became the first WiMAX city in America, and the service’s prospects look mediocre at best. Will WiMAX live up to its hype, or turn the divide into a chasm?

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Journalists and geeks have christened WiMAX, the successor to Wi-Fi technology, with many lovely names. It’s been called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” “Wi-Fi’s older brother” and even “the key to bridging the digital divide.” Purported by experts to be quicker and cheaper than Wi-Fi, WiMAX’s first two names are fine descriptions. The last moniker, however, has been much more difficult to live up to.

When the WiMAX Forum introduced the newfangled technology in 2001, scientists and urban planners predicted that it would spread Internet access to underserved communities and impoverished citizens throughout the world. It certainly seemed promising: in a Wi-Fi zone, you can connect to the Internet within a 50-meter radius; but in a WiMAX zone, you can connect within a 20-kilometer radius. Because it covers a much larger area, WiMAX is less costly per square meter than Wi-Fi. In an International Herald Tribune article, Motorola’s sales director also noted that it’s also easier to install, especially in areas with little telecommunications infrastructure.

“With WiMAX, an Internet service provider that wants to reach a small community up to 30 miles away can set up a wireless link for thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands,” said Jeff Evans, a Georgia Tech Research Institute senior research engineer, in Research Horizons magazine.

And indeed, WiMAX has been a fountainhead for bridging the digital divide in other countries. In Haiti, French coffee producer Cafés Malongo used WiMAX to provide Internet access to local coffee cooperatives. In the deep, isolated valley of Mae Hong Song, Thailand, the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre will install WiMAX during the beginning of next year. Global Mobile, a digital content business in Taiwan, is implementing WiMAX in remote areas that lack proper infrastructure.

In the United States, WiMAX isn’t being used for such noble causes.

Earlier this week, Baltimore became the first American WiMAX city. To connect to the service, citizens have to use Sprint, which is charging $35 per month for home access and $45 per month for roaming connections. This is hardly more cost-effective than Wi-Fi. In fact, Comcast’s high-speed Internet is actually less expensive than Sprint’s WiMAX – its prices start at $20 per month. Sprint is also targeting people with less discretionary income: like MetroPCS, a cell phone provider, users don’t need to sign a contract with Sprint. And they can obtain daily passes, which cost an outlandish $10, if they can’t commit to $35 or $45 each month.

The bill isn’t tallied yet: on top of the initial charge, you need a $60 laptop card or an $80 modem to use the network.

According to countless reports, WiMAX should be cheaper than Wi-Fi. But in Baltimore, Sprint is poised to make a fortune off the technology, without charging any less than its Wi-Fi competitors.

Companies, of course, should (and will) profit from WiMAX technology. But while Sprint capitalizes off techies who are stoked about WiMAX’s far-reaching capabilities, it should also provide more affordable options to people with lower incomes.

Sprint is planning to install WiMAX in several cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington and Chicago. When other WiMAX providers start competing with Sprint, prices will drop.

Local governments and non-profits may even use WiMAX to provide Internet access to underserved and remote communities. In the upcoming issue of Next American City, reporter Helen Huang reports on several governments and non-profits that spread the Internet love with good old Wi-Fi, so there’s a good possibility this will happen.

Here’s to hoping.

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Tags: baltimoreinternet accesshaiti

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