WiMax on the ocean waves

Some places are still wondering how to deliver WiMax, but Singapore has gone right ahead with a network that covers its port and inshore waters.

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Once I had Flash installed, I was able to watch several videos and visited several different Web sites, which all loaded quickly. Great, I thought, that's nothing special; it's just like any other decent Internet connection. And that's the whole point.

The reason Intel is head over heels for WiMax is the ability for operators to build high-speed, wireless data networks that cover a large area. Eventually, access to an inexpensive, high-speed Internet connection from virtually anywhere is something that will be taken for granted, or so the PowerPoint decks prepared by Intel's marketing department would have us believe.

I'm sceptical about the low-cost part of that vision, at least for the foreseeable future. Even if WiMax networks cost less than cellular-based data networks to build, that doesn't mean users will see dramatically lower service costs. Operators will set WiMax service prices at a level that maximises their profits, and mobile data services will command a hefty premium relative to fixed-line broadband connections.

WisePort access is available at speeds of 512 kbit/s (bits per second). The service - which is still in the pilot stage - costs S$140 (US$104) to activate with one WiMax modem, and is free for one year, according to a QMax sales representative. After one year, the service will cost around S$100 per month.

That's not particularly cheap, relative to cellular data services. For example, I subscribe to a 1 Mbit/s 3G data service that gives me unlimited data access for a monthly fee of S$22.

As the Sardinia pulled back into the marina to pick up another boatload of journalists waiting to try the WiMax network, I spoke with Alex Tan, director of QMax's parent company, Qala, about how shipping companies are using WiMax.

Most companies are using the WiMax network for backhaul, Tan said. For example, they are linking shipboard Wi-Fi networks with the Internet to download updates and corrections to navigation charts, he said, adding that WiMax costs substantially less than satellite Internet services, which is what ships use at sea.

"And the sailors love it, because they can Skype all they want in port," he said.

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