The race between LTE and WiMax, intriguing before the economy crashed, now is even more interesting. The basic scenario is that WiMax is already is in commercial deployment-with Clearwire's Clear service and others-while LTE is rushing into productionand has had commitments from powerhouse networks such as AT&T and Verizon. The bad financial landscape makes every move even more critical. The margin of error -- never great for an expensive new technology -- is even smaller during trying times.
That's why every piece of news, good or bad, is important. What is being announced is important in its own right -- and also can push the momentum toward or away from the technology. The latest news is significant-and not very good for LTE. GigaOm reports on word from Deutsche Bank that Qualcomm chipsets for data cards will be delayed until the second half of 2010 and for handsets until "well into" the next year. The story goes into detail, but the bottom line is that this will play havoc with the launch. Simply, the development of a high-speed network is rendered a moot point if few people have the technology in their mobile devices to take advantage of it.
In some instances, it is important to read between the lines. This blog posting reports upon comments made by Michael Mamaghani, Qualcomm's director of marketing, at the Globalpress Summit Conference last week in San Francisco. Mamaghani said all the right good things about LTE, which his company is backing. He also said all the right dismissive things about WiMax, which it is not. The subtleties involved how he addressed the timeframe for LTE. He first described the gap between the finalization of the 3G standard and what he considers mass commercialization. He then used that time period to predict that LTE won't hit the masses in a big way until the 2012 to 2014 timeframe. The underlying message is that the timing of the network rollout is not completely up to the carrier. The attitude and opinion of vendors-some of which may have significantly different agendas and priorities-is a significant consideration.
The introduction of gear that uses a new networking protocol is a gradual process. More accurately, it is a set of gradual processes. The chips may be integrated into bigger devices-laptops instead of phones, for instance-first. For various reasons, there generally are pre-production versions of phones that house the LTE functionality separately. These units will be bulky and eat batteries alive and thus aren't intended for wide deployment. A third issue is the preparation of the various technical and business infrastructure elements beyond the core technology necessary to support large scale commercial numbers. The key is gating all of these fluid evolutionary cycles against the key element: Customer demand. Some of these issues are discussed at Unstrung. The bottom line is that Verizon pronouncements that LTE will be available in a certain amount of markets by a certain date is tentative and clearly open to delay.
This very interesting WirelessWeek piece talks a bit more generally about the transition from one platform to the next. There seems to be good news and challenges. The good news is that "it seems the industry has learned a few lessons." It is likely to start with larger scale integrations and, in general, avoid some of the missteps of the past. Thus, for instance, it may first deploy the chips in dongles instead of immediately putting the technology into cell phones. On the other side of the coin, there simply are more protocols to be integrated as the industry ages. The bottom line is that there still is a lot of detail-oriented work to be done.
Real rollouts are worlds away from press release fantasy lands. It remains to be seen whether the delays materialize, dissipate or get worse. What is certain is that Verizon Wireless was pushing for earlier deployments than once thought likely, and was trying to build excitement. From that perspective, any delays will not be helpful.