WiMax vs. Long Term Evolution: Let the battle begin

GSM carriers widely plan to back LTE, but WiMax will push competitors in the US

A long-term battle is brewing between two emerging high-speed wireless technologies, WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE). Each would more than quadruple existing wireless wide-area access speeds for users.

The two technologies are somewhat alike in the way they transmit signals and even in their network speeds. The meaningful differences have more to do with politics specifically, which carriers will offer which technology, as in the recent skirmish between backers of Blu-ray and HD video.

In this coming wireless war, one technology won't necessarily obliterate the other, but analysts believe LTE will have a tremendous upper hand over WiMax in coming years, primarily because carriers on the GSM standard (Global System for Mobile communications) predominate around the globe and will use LTE as their upgrade pathway. GSM is the most popular mobile communications standard.

LTE will dominate, analysts believe, despite the recent attention generated by plans for a joint venture between Sprint Nextel and Clearwire for a national WiMax network that is expected to reach 120 million to 140 million people in the US by the end of 2010. Even though Sprint officials admit that's an ambitious goal, they believe they have a clear time-to-market advantage over LTE in the US, by perhaps a year or more.

So far, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the two biggest wireless carriers in the US, have stated plans to adopt LTE, with major rollouts planned for 2011 or 2012. And, in a surprise to many, even Sprint has not ruled out building LTE and is not prevented from doing so by its joint venture plans with Clearwire and several major investors including Google, Intel and three cable companies.

"WiMax and LTE are directly comparable in terms of what they do, and it's very likely LTE will have a significant global advantage over WiMax in the long term," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at The Farpoint Group and columnist. "But that doesn't mean WiMax is toast or won't survive, although I'm not even sure of [Sprint's] expected time-to-market advantage when we talk about critical mass penetration.

"LTE is the natural upgrade path for GSM, and that leads me to conclude that LTE will be one tough cookie for WiMax to beat," he added.

The GSM family will account for fully 89 per cent of the global market in 2011, according to Gartner. In the US, AT&T is a GSM provider, along with T-Mobile, which many believe will eventually announce intentions to support LTE.

"WiMax drives the hype for 4G [fourth-generation wireless technology], but LTE will be the dominant standard," Gartner analyst Phillip Redman wrote in an April report.

The players

In addition to the carriers, there are standards groups and manufacturers driving the two technologies. So far in the US, Sprint and Clearwire are aligned behind WiMax, while Verizon Wireless and AT&T are behind LTE.

Still, as of now, LTE is not even a set standard. However, that status might be conferred on LTE in the last half of this year by a group of vendors calling itself the 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project), Redman said.

LTE is in trials in the US, Europe and China, according to a Verizon spokesman, who refused to divulge the US location or any other details.

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) picked 802.16e as its mobile WiMax standard in late 2005, and that is the standard Sprint began deploying last fall in three markets -- Washington, Baltimore and Chicago -- in what it has begun calling a "soft launch," with its employees as users. The carrier still has not officially announced a commercial service timetable.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld

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