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WIMAX

WiMAX set to alter wireless landscape

by Shinichi Terada

Now that the government has licensed use of the 2.5-gigahertz bandwidth, Japan will soon be joining South Korea, Taiwan and others in offering next-generation wireless services for users of mobile phones and computers.

Some of those services will be based on WiMAX, a new technology that drastically increases the range and transmission speed of these devices. It may also be applied to game consoles and portable music players. Following are some questions and answers about the emerging technology:

What is WiMAX?

WiMAX is short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. The technology increases the speed and distance over which data can be transmitted via computers and mobile phones. People can even watch uninterrupted video while riding a train.

The Wi-Fi wireless networks in use at airports, coffee shops and the like require laptop computers to be near a transmitter. WiMAX, on the other hand, allows machines to connect within a radius of several kilometers. What’s more, the new technology allows downloads of songs and pictures at twice the speed of current mobile phones, according to Satoshi Awamura, a consultant at Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo.

Are there other benefits?

Makers of car navigation systems, consumer electronics and games may also use WiMAX, Awamura said. Nintendo, for example, could use the technology to let users of its DS hand-held console play games with someone far away, he said. Pictures taken with a digital camera using a WiMAX data transmission network could be sent over the Internet in no time.

In Japan, Internet browsing on mobile phones is much more advanced than in other countries, thanks to the fast data transmission facilities Japan already has in place. And the government says that more people were using the Internet via mobile phones in 2006 than by computers. WiMAX is expected to give a further boost to data transmission via mobile phones at a time when cell phone operators are losing revenues from voice transmission.

How will WiMAX be implemented in Japan?

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry opened up the 2.5-gigahertz frequency band for WiMAX and awarded bandwidth licenses in late December to KDDI Corp. and Willcom Inc.

The government said the main reason these two companies were selected is because their plans ensured faster and broader implementation than other candidates. Even though rival mobile phone carriers NTT DoCoMo Inc. and Softbank Corp. were not awarded licenses, any company is allowed to offer WiMAX services through leasing agreements with KDDI or Willcom. Such companies are called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).

So what’s the plan for KDDI and Willcom?

KDDI has formed a consortium that includes Intel Corp., East Japan Railway Co. and Kyocera Corp. The group said WiMAX services will start next February, although KDDI will continue to offer its current mobile phone services. By the end of 2012, 93 percent of Japan will be covered by WiMAX, according to the group, providing Internet access to computers and possibly even cameras and portable video game units.

Willcom, which uses the personal handy-phone system to offer wireless services, aims to offer a next-generation PHS service by April 2009. By the end of 2012, the services will cover 91 percent of Japan.

Is WiMAX common in other countries?

South Korea’s SK Telecom Co. started to offer the services in 2006 and last year the Taiwanese government handed out six WiMAX licenses to companies including Far EasTone Telecommunications Co., which is scheduled to start services by the end of 2008. In the U.S., No.3 carrier Sprint Nextel Corp. is launching mobile WiMAX services in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C., aiming for commercial services in select cities later this year.

Meanwhile, Fujitsu Ltd. and the Taiwanese government announced in early December they will jointly develop WiMAX broadband chips in Taiwan to commercialize the next-generation mobile technology, a significant step toward making WiMAX the new standard, because many PCs are made by Taiwanese companies.

A recent report by U.K.-based telecom research firm Juniper Research said there will be more than 80 million mobile WiMAX subscribers worldwide by 2013, led by the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

The report also said the number could go higher if the platform is integrated into devices such as laptop computers, portable music players and game consoles.

It seems WiMAX has a bright future, but are there drawbacks?

It hasn’t been established yet what, if any, negative health effects there might be. Even now, the electromagnetic waves from mobile phones are thought to possibly affect pacemakers at close range.

Experts say the products should be thoroughly tested before released.

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