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Wi-fi has untethered Web surfers from phone and network cables, but users still can’t stray more than about a hundred meters from a transmitter before they lose their connections. A wireless technology with better range may soon cut this invisible leash.

The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers is standardizing a technology called 802.16, or WirelessMAN, for Wireless Metropolitan-Area Networking, which should enable computers to communicate wirelessly over kilometers. At least 25 companies, including Intel and Nokia, have joined the WiMAX Forum, an industry group that is forming to promote the new technology. Products compliant with the standard should begin hitting retail stores’ shelves by the end of 2004.

WirelessMAN proponents believe the new standards will allow broadband wireless to take off at last. “Some people predict that there will be tens of millions of broadband customers worldwide in four or five years,” says Mohammad Shakouri, vice president of business development at Alvarion, a Tel Aviv, Israel-based wireless-broadband company. “I think that’s an underestimate.”

While Wi-Fi–as IEEE’s 802.11b standard is popularly known–connects computers to the Internet via a wired modem, WirelessMAN is a completely wireless broadband technology. In its ultimate implementation, base stations mounted on buildings or cell-phone towers will beam radio signals to a wireless modem in every WirelessMAN-enabled device. In addition, higher-power transceivers allow WirelessMAN to provide wireless communication over tens of kilometers, so users can access the Internet virtually anywhere in a city. Differences in the way WirelessMAN coordinates radio communication between base stations and users make the service more reliable and up to six times faster than cable, DSL, or Wi-Fi–at least in theory. Connection speeds will depend on the number and proximity of the base stations.

While the technology is ready, whether it can beat existing broadband Internet access on speed or cost is debatable. “I haven’t seen anything that makes me think that it will be viable in places where DSL and cable are well established,” says Charles Golvin of Forrester Research in Cambridge, MA. Some analysts estimate the monthly cost for WirelessMAN Internet access could be double that of DSL or cable.

WirelessMAN proponents say the technology will gain a foothold first in areas without high-speed Internet and will eventually compete with DSL, taking advantage of the growing hunger for both high-speed and wireless Internet access.

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