Is WiMAX or LTE the better 4G choice in Malaysia?

WiMAX or LTE (long-term evolution) – which is superior? It, of course, depends on who you talk to. The vendors have their own stories, and the operators theirs. For the consumers, it is not about technology. It is about speed and seamless connectivity, and not having to buy different devices to operate on different platforms.

From the technical viewpoint, both are next-generation technologies for the wireless world. The choice between WiMAX and LTE hinges on the needs of the operator and the market demands, but the fact is, there seemingly is an insatiable appetite for data on the go.

WiMAX (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) is a fourth-generation (4G) telecommunications technology primarily for fast broadband.

Also a 4G mobile technology, LTE allows a peak download speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) on mobile phones, compared with 20Mbps for 3G and 40Mbps for WiMAX.

“For operators, the choice of technology depends on a number of things including available spectrum, legacy inter-working, timing and business focus,” says Nokia Siemens Networks head of sub region, Asia South, Lars Biese.

To deploy either technology, operators will have to commit tens of billions of dollars in network upgrades for the new mobility landscape, which now includes social, video, location-based and entertainment applications and experiences.

In many countries, the current generation of mobile telecoms networks is 3G. Those in Malaysia are deployed by the four mobile players – Celcom Axiata Bhd, DiGi.Com Bhd, Maxis Communications Bhd and U Mobile Sdn Bhd.

Biese reckons LTE is the next step for mobile networks like GSM, WCDMA/HSPA and CDMA in the move to future networks and services.

The common belief is that the natural migration path is from 2G to GPRS, from GPRS to 3G, and from 3G to LTE. But IDC Asia/Pacific’s telecom research director Bill Rojas has a differing view. To him, LTE is a totally new set-up.

“GSM and GPRS were part of a migration. In Asia, the players may put LTE on top of 3G, but this will not cover the entire population. The concentration will be on urban centres. For full coverage, the operator needs to build more than 30% new cell sites,” Rojas says.

It has been reported that LTE’s main advantage over WiMAX, in addition to speed, is that it is part of the popular GSM technology and can allow backward compatibility with both 2G and 3G networks.

LTE is relatively new compared with WiMAX. The world’s first public LTE service was made available only at the end of last year by TeliaSonera in Stockholm and Oslo.

Some people may said that LTE means "Late To Evolve"... However, LTE is fast catching up with WiMAX even though the WiMAX Forum, an industry organisation, stresses that its platform is at least two years ahead in terms of equipment availability and testing.

The Global Suppliers Association (GSA) says there are more than 59 LTE network commitments in 28 countries. In comparison, according to the WiMAX Forum, there are 559 WiMAX networks worldwide.

“To date, all existing GSM and WCDMA (3GPP) operators and CDMA (3GPP2) operators have committed to LTE as the technology of choice for their mobile network evolution, and by 2013, it is expected that there will be 20.4 million connections activated on LTE in the Asia Pacific,” says Biese.

On the other hand, YTL Communications Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Wing K Lee claims that mobile WiMAX is the only commercially proven technology that has been deployed on a large scale.

Nevertheless, market dynamics will determine the outcome of the race.

There are four WiMAX spectrum holders in Malaysia, namely, Packet One Networks (M) Sdn Bhd, REDtone International Bhd, Asiaspace Sdn Bhd and YTL Communications, which is the only one that has yet to roll out services commercially.

Rojas of IDC says both technologies can co-exist, but to him, WiMAX is still the purest 4G network. Naturally, the promoters of LTE have the opposite view.

That aside, Lee of YTL Communications points out that LTE and WiMAX serve the wireless broadband market and both technologies fundamentally share the same technological foundation. Therefore, they have more similarities than differences.

Should they then be merged, as suggested by US-based Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow, given the overlap in the technologies?

While the debate rages on, the mobile operators in Malaysia still have a little bit of time to decide on which route to take to add capacity. This is because they have not fully exhausted their 3G spectrum. Even the WiMAX players have not fully exploited their 2.3G spectrum.

At some point, Rojas believes, the Malaysian Government will have to decide on spectrum allocation for LTE. Until then, do not expect the operators to fast-track their network expansion, even though some may face bottlenecks soon.

Furthermore, the Government needs to be certain that LTE is what the market needs. “Without (additional) spectrum after 3G, operators will have to move to LTE using the 3G spectrum,’’ Rojas says.

Whatever is on the minds of the players and industry regulators, one thing is clear – the need for speed is growing by the day, and the planning for spectrum allocation should start before we hit bottlenecks.

Some industry players have also called for the Government to refarm spectrum so that there is a coordinated approach to spectrum allocation and assignment. Not that there isn’t, but given that spectrum is becoming a rare commodity, the Government should make sure that the spectrum awarded is put to good use.

Rojas expects major commercial roll-outs of LTE and WiMAX in Asia this year and next, but devices remain an issue in the world of 4G. At the same time, experts say it is about time that the industry focuses on a single device that works on all platforms.
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