Game on: WiMax will battle LTE in the trenches

While the two 4G wireless technologies can interoperate, AT&T, for one, is not interested

LAS VEGAS -- As the nation's wireless carriers rush to compete with faster 4G speeds on either WiMax or LTE technology, their workers are toiling in the trenches to make it happen.

One senior manager of handset marketing at Sprint Nextel, Trevor Van Norman, estimates he has helped launch 150 different phones over six years, and this week helped launch the WiMax-capable HTC EVO 4G, a smartphone seen as a boon for Sprint's WiMax service now in 27 cities and operated by Clearwire.

Having the first WiMax-capable phone on the market will help the WiMax cause, even as some analysts predict only a minor market share for WiMax compared with LTE by 2014, he told Computerworld.

"Having the [HTC EVO 4G] brings the [WiMax] message home," Van Norman said. Analysis firm Infonetics recently gave WiMax only a 3% U.S. market share in 2014, probably because essentially only one company, Sprint, will offer WiMax.

By comparison, LTE will be offered by Verizon Wireless, AT&T and eventually T-Mobile USA, he noted.

Just about everybody agrees LTE subscribers will be much bigger than WiMax, although several analysts surveyed this week said they believe WiMax will grow to a larger share than 3% by 2014.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse told a large CTIA audience this week that "LTE will be the larger of the two 4G standards," but noted that Sprint couldn't wait on LTE technology when it had "proven, tried and true" WiMax technology to run over Sprint's readily available spectrum.

Even with a minor share in the market, Sprint sees WiMax as vital to its future, and has even tied its compensation package to growth in 4G subscribers, Van Norman said.

"True, they are small financial rewards, just drinking money," Van Norman explained. "But our executives have committed to 4G." Sprint is offering WiMax to markets with 30 million people and expects to reach 120 million by year's end.

Hesse highlighted the value of a WiMax device to the medical profession, since it serves as a Wi-Fi hot spot to eight other devices, and could be used by a home visitation nurse who might collect data over Wi-Fi from various medical devices. "All kinds of medical devices could connect," he said.

One concern with the new HTC EVO 4G smartphone is how it will perform in wireless networks where WiMax is not available. Van Norman said that when WiMax is not there, the EVO will function over Sprint's EVDO 3G network.

Van Norman said there might be a two or three-second disruption for a bandwidth intense application such as streaming video when the phone switches from 4G to 3G.

Clearwire CEO William Morrow, also speaking to the CTIA crowd, urged other carriers adopting LTE to interoperate with WiMax. "We have the opportunity to converge [WiMax and LTE]," Morrow said. "Let's work together and go forward."

He noted that Intel and Vodafone, among other companies, "all believe the time is now to integrate this and move forward."

Morrow also noted that chip maker Beceem Communications recently announced a chip that supports both WiMax and LTE.

Verizon and AT&T representatives' responses to questions at CTIA about whether they would be willing to allow future devices to work over both LTE and WiMax were less than encouraging.

A spokesman for Verizon said that interoperability was "not something we are looking at."

But Glenn Lurie, AT&T's president of emerging devices, was more blunt, saying that even though AT&T was wirelessly enabling all types of devices, not just smartphones, WiMax was not in the mix. "At AT&T, it's all about Wi-Fi. We're not supporting WiMax," he said.

ABI analyst Kevin Burden said it might make some sense for AT&T and other LTE carriers to interoperate with WiMax, at least in terms of a dual chipset in devices that will work on both standards. "What's it going to cost to add WiMax capability to a phone? Maybe $10?" Burden said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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