Broadband wireless sits at the confluence of two of the most remarkable growth stories of the telecommunications industry in recent years. Both wireless and broadband have on their own enjoyed rapid mass-market adoption. The staggering growth of the Internet is driving demand for higher-speed Internet-access services, leading to a parallel growth in broadband adoption .
So what is broadband wireless? Broadband wireless is about bringing the broadband experience to a wireless context, which offers users certain unique benefits and convenience. There are two fundamentally different types of broadband wireless services. The first type attempts to provide a set of services similar to that of the traditional fixed-line broadband but using wireless as the medium of transmission. This type, called fixed wireless broadband, can be thought of as a competitive alternative to DSL or cable modem. The second type of broadband wireless, called mobile broadband, offers the additional functionality of portability, nomadicity and mobility. Mobile broadband attempts to bring broadband applications to new user experience scenarios and hence can offer the end user a very different value proposition. Wi-MAX is an acronym that stands for World-wide Interoperability for Microwave Access and this technology is designed to accommodate both fixed and mobile broadband applications.
EVOLUTION OF BROADBAND WIRELESS
WiMAX technology has evolved through four stages, albeit not fully distinct or clearly sequential: (1) narrowband wireless local-loop systems, (2) first-generation line-of-sight (LOS) broadband systems, (3) second-generation non-line-of-sight (NLOS) broadband systems, and (4) standards-based broadband wireless systems.
NARROWBAND WIRELESS LOCAL-LOOP SYSTEMS
Naturally, the first application for which a wireless alternative was developed and deployed was voice telephony. These systems, called wireless local-loop (WLL), were quite successful in developing countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Russia. In fact, WLL systems based on the digital-enhanced cordless telephony (DECT) and code division multiple access (CDMA) standards continue to be deployed in these markets.
During the same time, several small start-up companies focused solely on providing Internet-access services using wireless. These wireless Internet service provider (WISP) companies typically deployed systems in the license-exempt 900MHz and 2.4GHz bands. Most of these systems required antennas to be installed at the customer premises, either on rooftops or under the eaves of their buildings. Deployments were limited mostly to select neighborhoods and small towns. These early systems typically offered speeds up to a few hundred kilobits per second. Later evolutions of license-exempt systems were able to provide higher speeds.
FIRST-GENERATION BROADBAND SYSTEMS
As DSL and cable modems began to be deployed, wireless systems had to evolve to support much higher speeds to be competitive. Systems began to be developed for higher frequencies, such as the 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz bands. Very high speed systems, called local multipoint distribution systems (LMDS), supporting up to several hundreds of megabits per second, were also developed in millimeter wave frequency bands, such as the 24GHz and 39GHz bands. LMDS-based services were targeted at business users.
In the late 1990s, one of the more important deployments of wireless broadband happened in the so-called multi channel multipoint distribution services (MMDS) band at 2.5GHz. The MMDS band was historically used to provide wireless cable broadcast video services, especially in rural areas where cable TV services were not available. The advent of satellite TV ruined the wireless cable business, and operators were looking for alternative ways to use this spectrum. A few operators began to offer one-way wireless Internet-access service, using telephone line as the return path.
The first generations of these fixed broadband wireless solutions were deployed using the same towers that served wireless cable subscribers. These towers were typically several hundred feet tall and enabled LOS coverage to distances up to 35 miles, using high-power transmitters. First-generation MMDS systems required that subscribers install at their premises outdoor antennas high enough and pointed toward the tower for a clear LOS transmission path. The outdoor antenna and LOS requirements proved to be significant impediments. Besides, since a fairly large area was being served by a single tower, the capacity of these systems was fairly limited. Similar first-generation LOS systems were deployed internationally in the 3.5GHz band.
SECOND-GENERATION BROADBAND SYSTEMS
Second-generation broadband wireless systems were able to overcome the LOS issue and to provide more capacity. This was done through the use of a cellular architecture and implementation of advanced-signal processing techniques to improve the link and system performance under multi path conditions. Several start-up companies developed advanced proprietary solutions that provided significant performance gains over first-generation systems. Most of these new systems could perform well under non-line-of-sight conditions, with customer-premise antennas typically mounted under the eaves or lower. Many solved the NLOS problem by using such techniques as orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), code division multiple access (CDMA), and multi antenna processing. A few megabits per second throughput over cell ranges of a few miles had become possible with second-generation fixed wireless broadband systems.
EMERGENCE OF STANDARDS-BASED TECHNOLOGY
In 1998, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) formed a group called 802.16 to develop a standard for what was called a wireless metropolitan area network, or wireless MAN. Originally, this group focused on developing solutions in the 10GHz to 66GHz band, with the primary application being delivering high-speed connections to businesses that could not obtain fiber. These systems, like LMDS, were conceived as being able to tap into fiber rings and to distribute that bandwidth through a point-to-multipoint configuration to LOS businesses. The IEEE 802.16 group produced a standard that was approved in December 2001. This standard, Wireless MAN-SC, specified a physical layer that used single-carrier modulation techniques and a media access control (MAC) layer with a burst time division multiplexing (TDM) structure that supported both frequency division duplexing (FDD) and time division duplexing (TDD).
After completing this standard, the group started work on extending and modifying it to work in both licensed and license-exempt frequencies in the 2GHz to 11GHz range, which would enable NLOS deployments. This amendment, IEEE 802.16a, was completed in 2003, with OFDM schemes added as part of the physical layer for supporting deployment in multipath environments. By this time, OFDM had established itself as a method of choice for dealing with multipath for broadband and was already part of the revised IEEE 802.11 standards. Besides the OFDM physical layers, 802.16a also specified additional MAC-layer options, including support for orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA).
Further revisions to 802.16a were made and completed in 2004. This revised standard, IEEE 802.16-2004, replaces 802.16, 802.16a, and 802.16c with a single standard, which has also been adopted as the basis for HIPERMAN (high-performance metropolitan area network) by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). In 2003, the 802.16 group began work on enhancements to the specifications to allow vehicular mobility applications. That revision, 802.16e, was completed in December 2005 and was published formally as IEEE 802.16e-2005. It specifies scalable OFDM for the physical layer and makes further modifications to the MAC layer to accommodate high-speed mobility.