Update on the LTE and mobile Wimax battle

Paul Boughton
There appears to be an ongoing battle between supporters of LTE and mobile Wimax. Mobile Wimax proponents say they already have subscribers logging onto 802.16e networks around the world whereas LTE networks are still at least three years away from commercial deployment. Meanwhile LTE proponents argue that mobile operators will want to hold off on any 4G network deployments anyway in an effort to maximise returns on their investments in 3G networks, thereby setting the stage for LTE commercial roll-outs in three of four years. Although both standards will achieve some level of success, IMS Research believes that the road for mobile Wimax looks to be significantly rougher than that of LTE for a number of reasons.

For one, the 3GPP has already tabbed LTE as the 4G standard on the GSM evolution path and the fact that the majority of cellular networks around the world are GSM does not bode well for mobile Wimax supporters. This lack of widespread adoption will leave little incentive for mobile device manufacturers to develop products that support mobile Wimax applications.

Another issue for mobile Wimax is its lack of backwards compatibility with existing mobile technologies. It is obvious that mobile Wimax networks, or any cellular network for that matter, cannot be created overnight. Initially Mobile Wimax networks will therefore be confined to large cities and major metropolitan areas, with limited coverage and, as a result, it might be necessary for network operators to offer dual-mode Wimax/CDMA devices in an effort to offer ubiquitous mobile data coverage. This could force Wimax chip vendors such as Beceem, Sequans and Intel to wait until Wimax networks offer sufficient enough coverage to justify Wimax-only devices. Alternatively, the handset OEMs would need to decide if they want to pay royalties to multiple mobile chipset manufacturers to bring these dual-mode devices to market.

LTE may encounter a similar hurdle, as it is still unclear as to what level the standard will be backwards-compatible. However, since for the most part LTE chipset manufacturers also make chipsets for existing mobile technologies licensing and royalty issues are much less likely to be a factor in the event that a device would require the addition of a separate 3G module. Many in the Wimax community are quick to point to their time-to-market advantage over LTE. The question remains, though, just because the technology is available, does it make sense to deploy it? Network operators are only now beginning to see a return on their 3G investments as more and more consumers begin to take advantage of mobile data plans. The fact that LTE will not be ready for another two or three years may actually turn out to be somewhat of an advantage for LTE, as the timeframe will allow for mobile operators to get as much life as possible out of their existing 3G networks.

Wimax is a very robust technology that has been quite successful in many parts of the world for fixed broadband access and will continue to do so, especially in underserved markets. Although mobile Wimax networks are already going live thanks to Sprint/Clearwire and Korea Telecom, the prospects for additional mobile Wimax networks from Tier 1 operators are not looking good.

For a more in-depth look at Wimax from both a fixed and mobile perspective, see IMS Research's report, 'The Worldwide Market for Wimax and Competing Products – 2008 Edition.' In addition, the upcoming report from IMS Research, 'Mobile Broadband: 4G Network Evolution,' will contain a comprehensive analysis of both the mobile Wimax and LTE markets.

The Worldwide Market for Wimax and Competing Products – 2008 Edition