WiMax vs. Long Term Evolution: Let the battle begin

GSM carriers widely plan to back LTE, but WiMax will push competitors in the U.S

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 Corp. and Clearwire Corp. for a national WiMax network that is expected to reach 120 million to 140 million people in the U.S. 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 U.S., by perhaps a year or more.

So far, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, the two biggest wireless carriers in the U.S., 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 Inc., Intel Corp. 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 a Computerworld 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% of the global market in 2011, according to Gartner Inc. In the U.S., 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.

WiMax vs. LTE

  WiMax LTE
Maker of standard and year 802.16e (mobile) in 2005 from IEEE Second half of 2008 from 3GPP
Current U.S. Pilots/Trials Baltimore, Chicago and Washington U.S. (sites not disclosed), Europe and China
Mass market availability Late 2010 2011-2012
U.S. carriers and investors

Sprint now; but proposed Clearwire

joint venture with Sprint includes investors Google,

Intel and three cable companies

AT&T, Verizon Wireless
Technical capabilities

Multiple Input-Multiple Output (MIMO)

Downlink: Orthagonal Frequency Division

Modulation

Uplink: OFDM

MIMO

Downlink: OFDM

Uplink: SC - FDMA (Single Carrier- Frequency Division Multiple

Access)
Speeds

In soft launch: 2Mbit/sec. to 4Mbit/sec. average download;

10Mbit/sec. peak download

70Mbit/sec. theoretical max
100 Mbit/sec. theoretical max
Radio Spectrum expected 2.5 GHz 700 MHz
Sources: Industry analysts, vendors and reference guides
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