Forget online music, forget video-sharing sites and forget online shopping, the thing that's had the biggest impact on the way we use the web over the past five years has nothing to do with content and services. The widespread availability of broadband connections is the reason we use web more now than we did before, and it's made connecting to the net an altogether more stress-free experience.
But five years down the line, the ubiquitous landline connection will no longer provide sufficient access to online content. We'll want a high-speed connection wherever we are. Whereas in 2002 many Brits were complaining about the digital divide in terms of the broadband haves and have-nots, in 2012 the division will be between those who can and those who cannot access a high-speed wireless service in their area.
One wireless standard in particular has been earmarked as the technology that could enable the mobile internet across the UK. WiMax (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) is a high-speed wireless service designed for both static and mobile users. If the hype is to be believed, a single WiMax chip could potentially enable internet access for hundreds of terminals at anything from a megabyte per second to tens of times that speed over distances of up to 10km.
As ever, it's a matter of being in the right place – and that place is slap-bang in front of the transmitting antenna at the base station.
An interesting point about WiMax is that it is a symmetrical service, so in theory you should be able to enjoy upspeeds every bit as fast as you can pull down content. However, the types of service that will be made available are still under discussion.
WiMax doesn't use copper cabling, so it won't have the constraints the ADSL broadband network faces. Another point in its favour is that Intel is behind it, with plans to add WiMax radio controllers to its next generation of Centrino mobile processors "effectively creating", according to Pipex's Graham Currier, "your own [wi-fi] hotspot".
WiMax may be backed by the likes of Intel but, as with the famously pricey 3G (touted as mobile broadband but slow to take off), operators who want to offer a WiMax service have to pay a fair old whack for the privilege. Unsurprisingly, overseer the WiMax Forum is at great pains to ensure costs are kept under control for what is being called '4G'.
Although originally envisaged as a replacement for Wi-Fi, WiMax is more likely to become an alternative way of providing city-wide wireless internet access. It will also provide broadband in areas untouched by wired ADSL and cable networks.
As for being a successor to the slowburning 3G, an OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) report in spring 2006 suggested that mobile operators who had already invested in the 3G network would be more likely to upgrade their networks using HSDPA (high-speed download packet access). Either way, 3G and 4G networks will coexist.
In the UK, broadband service provider Pipex is leading the charge. The company conducted trials in Stratford-upon-Avon in early 2006 and, late last summer, Milton Keynes became the most connected British city thanks to a full rollout of WiMax there. While the first UK WiMax customer is almost certain to be one of the Milton Keynes triallists, Manchester is being primed as the first major city with a commercial WiMax service, says Graham Currier, Pipex's business development manager.
Currier told PC Advisor that Pipex has been laying the foundations for WiMax in a number of locations while the technical trials have been taking place in Buckinghamshire. It will be at least nine months for a core of sites to be ready to provide wireless broadband this way, he said.
Across the Atlantic, US users are already getting their first taste of WiMax as mobile phone operator Sprint/Nextel launches its 2-4Mbps service, with uploads from 512Kb to 1Mbps. The network may be fast enough for use on the road and at home, according to Sprint's director of broadband strategy Peter Cannistra. The company hopes to tempt up to 100 million customers to use WiMax by the end of 2008.
Sprint's service will initially work only with hybrid mobile/WiMax handsets and laptops, but Cannistra predicts that WiMax chips will become standard equipment in all manner of devices, including desktop computers, routers and MP3 players. "It'll just be there, like Wi-Fi today or like 56K modems were in the past," he says.