Good Days for LTE, But WiMax Still Has Cards to Play

Carl Weinschenk

The race for 4G supremacy has ramped up during the past couple years. At least one executive -- Sachio Semmoto, founder of eAccess Ltd., a Japanese wireless company -- thinks it is over. He says that the winner will be Long Term Evolution (LTE).


At the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit in Tokyo, Semmoto said that WiMax is destined for minority status and, in the telecommunications industry, "that's the end of life." Semmoto certainly is not shy -- he also calls the iPhone a failure because Apple chose the AT&T network in the United States.


The story doesn't say, however, if Semmoto gave reasons for LTE's advantage or what they are. In general, those favoring LTE say that the proof is in the pudding: The platform has been chosen by an impressive group of carriers which, according to the story, include Vodafone, Verizon Wireless, China Mobile and NTT DoCoMo.


Despite Semmoto's apparent disdain for AT&T's network, the carrier claims to be ahead of its U.S. rivals. InfoWorld reports that it will complete its High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) rollout by the end of next month. HSPA is comprised of High Speed Downlink Packet Access and High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSDPA and HSUPA) components that deliver, respectively, 1.4 Mbps downloads and 800 kbps uploads. HSPA and LTE are members of the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) family. Thus, the HSPA rollout is considered a milestone on the road to 4G LTE.


This Inquirer story positions Alltel's choice of LTE as its 4G platform as further proof that the technology is surpassing WiMax. Indeed, it says that the choice by the fifth-largest U.S. carrier leaves Sprint Nextel "out on a limb" in its allegiance to WiMax. Even that win is a bit tenuous: The Inquirer says that T-Mobile USA owner Deutsche Telekom is reportedly interested in acquiring Sprint Nextel. T-Mobile USA, the story points out, is in the LTE camp. The writer raises the possibility, however, that both platforms will survive. If both follow the same standard -- International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) -- it is entirely possible that the standards will co-exist, even on the same chipset.


A tremendous amount of infrastructure is necessary for 4G networks of the future, whether the winner is LTE or WiMax -- or both. A parallel development is the femtocell, which essentially is a family of small base stations that can be deployed in premises to improve coverage and enable operators to use cheaper wireless instead of cellular spectrum. Unstrung reports that picoChip Designs has released reference designs for 4G femtocells. Thus, picoChip's customers -- which include Ubiquisys and ip.accss -- will be able seamlessly evolve from 3G to 4G LTE.


People who like competition -- sports fans, political junkies and corporate planners who know it leads to lower prices -- will enjoy the struggle between LTE and WiMax. It is obvious that LTE is winning the backing of many network operators. WiMax, according to PC World, still enjoys two advantages: It is available now and it is less expensive, since LTE licensees must pay royalties to Qualcomm for use of Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) approaches.


The story describes some of the challenges faced by WiMax, which is being certified in a cumbersome two-wave process. It is reasonable to expect that LTE will face its own challenges once it gets to the deployment phase. An interesting opinion is that WiMax's speed to market lead may actually not be too meaningful in this case. The logic is that major carriers are still dealing with 3G upgrades and aren't ready for a new platform.

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