WiMax vs. LTE: Which Will 'Win' in a Fast Deployment Cycle?

One of the biggest stories during the next year or so will be the rollout and subsequent marketing of 4G wireless networks.

It will be an interesting process as the two approaches – Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMax – vie for supremacy. The die already seems to be cast, however: WiMax, through Clearwire and its Clear service, is first out of the gate. LTE, however, through its use by Verizon and AT&T, seems positioned to be the dominant player when the dust settles.

WiMax suffered a bit of a blow earlier this month when Cisco decided not to build radios for the platform:

Technology is not an either/or game.The Cisco move clearly is not good news for WiMax, both in terms of image and because the vendor brings a lot to any table at which it chooses to sit. It’s also clear that WiMax will not be as big as LTE. All that said, however, it is apparent that WiMax remains a significant wireless networking force.

It is important to remember that the platform that comes in second in such a massive market will still be very successful. There are, for instance, secondary and specialty niches:

…WiMax is making strides with at least one significant niche category: smart grid networking. Earth2Tech reports that startup Arcadian Networks has released the AE20r gateway, a WiMax-focused device. The story says that Arcadian, which owns spectrum in the middle of the country, sells smart grid services to utilities. The story notes other vendors in the smart grid/WiMax arena, including Grid Net, General Electric, Alvarion and National Grid.

To be sure, Clearwire is not backing down:

Clearwire seems to be at the center of cable’s move to mobilize voice and advanced mobilized applications. FierceWireless, in a general report about Clearwire’s progress, said that the company plans to introduce a WiMax-enabled smartphone during 2010. The aim, according to CEO Bill Morrow, is to have the device in the field during the second half of the year. The story says that Sprint is planning 3G/4G phones, also by the end of 2010.

On the other side of town -- or of the R&D lab hallway -- is LTE. While WiMax was first out of the gate, the LTE sector is making up for lost time:

The LTE trial and test phase is white hot.

Driven by the increase in demand caused by fixed-rate data plans, coupled with the popularity of the iPhone and other advanced devices, the pace of testing of one of the two flavors of 4G technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE), is accelerating.

LTE is particularly active on the international front. ABI Research says that as of the end of September, 100 mobile networks were holding trials or were set to start. More than 40 of the trials are ongoing in the Asia-Pacific region – led by Japan and South Korea, with 33 contracts awarded. ABI Research says that though the first networks won’t start commercial operation until the end of next year, a robust 32.6 million subscribers will be served by LTE by 2013. The pressure is so great that many operators are taking the interim step of upgrading 3G networks to High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) status.

The stage was set once AT&T and, especially, Verizon made their choices:

Details are emerging on Verizon Wireless’s LTE rollout. Softpedia reports that the carrier, in one configuration, will offer per-user data speeds of 5 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps). The system will support video sharing, surveillance, conferencing and streaming. The story runs through the other advantages that Verizon Wireless is touting, and some of the challenges to older technologies that it supposedly alleviates.

The interesting thing is that LTE and WiMax are fairly close from the technical point of view. That means that it is theoretically possible for differences to be overcome and competition to become a thing of the past. While possible, it is thought unlikely:

On one hand, the battle for the future of 4G between LTE and WiMax will be fully joined. However, both are IP-based and use Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and, experts say, are relatively close on the telecommunications family tree. Indeed, the biggest difference may concern the other IP: intellectual property. Despite the maneuvering today, it is possible that in a few years the two will blend together.

The next year or so will be a good deal of fun for folks who like mano-a-mano competition, price pressure, glitzy ads -- and high-speed wireless networks. At the end of the day, it almost certainly is destined to end up as expected:

LTE will be the top dog, with WiMax a strong supporting player.
 
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