The standard for the broadband wireless technology known as mobile WiMax has been approved this week. Mobile WiMax networks will allow customers to wirelessly access the internet anywhere in a city.

Roger Marks, chair of the 802.16 working group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), announced that the international standards body has ratified the 802.16e standard, also called mobile WiMax. He posted news of the development to the 802.16e newsgroup.

The standard should enable vendors to build equipment that interoperates with gear from other vendors. But approval of the standard is only one step in the process of delivering services to customers.

"The standard being ratified is one thing, and the WiMax Forum having tested conforming products is another," said Ian Keene, a research vice-president at Gartner. He expects certified mobile WiMax products to become available near the end of 2006. After that, operators will have to build the networks before customers can take advantage of the service.

The WiMax Forum, an industry group that certifies gear as compliant with WiMax, is currently testing products for compliance with the fixed version of WiMax, but so far no products have been officially certified.

Mobile WiMax faces more competition now than when work first began on the standard. For example, some mobile phone operators are upgrading their networks for HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), which will deliver mobile data access.

However, Keene says the markets will remain distinct.

"I don't see the same people rolling out WiMax as rolling out HSDPA and I don't think it's the same target market either," he said. He suggested that the mobile form of WiMax will serve the community of operators building city-wide or municipal networks. These will be used by customers interested in accessing the internet while sitting in a cafe, at home or in their offices – not necessarily as they are actually moving. Networks such as HSDPA, by contrast, could be used by people on a moving train, for example.

WiBro, a similar mobile broadband standard developed in Korea, is also gaining momentum. Telecom Italia and an operator in Brazil said recently that they plan to build WiBro networks. WiBro and mobile WiMax are designed to interoperate. "WiBro is going to meld into WiMax," said Keene. "It's a start that allows some case studies and some experimentation."

Operators are already building networks using equipment based on the fixed WiMax standard, but it has not yet been certified. On Wednesday, Nortel said it is supplying a wireless broadband network based on fixed WiMax over 8,000 square miles of Alberta, Canada, for a Canadian government organisation. The network will offer broadband internet access to rural residents.