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LTE vs. WiMAX - A Contest or Not?

By Craig Mathias on Fri, 04/04/08 - 7:45am.

Nokia's announcement of the WiMAX version of the N810 this week at the CTIA show in Las Vegas lifted the curtain on yet another poorly-kept secret. Rumored for some time, the Internet Tablet WiMAX Edition is pretty much an N810 with a WiMAX radio added. As I've noted before, I really like the N810 (the version without WiMAX; I've not tried the new one), and I expect it to do well - once there's a US WiMAX network to run it on. In the meantime, BTW, the WiMAX N810 also has Wi-Fi and GPS - enough to keep you busy until service comes to your neighborhood.

And Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, in his keynote at CTIA, reaffirmed Sprint's commitment to WiMAX, although he didn't really say how he intends to pull off the feat of a nationwide WiMAX footprint before LTE (see a brief description on page 3 of this Motorola document also comes to town. It could be argued that LTE is still basically pie-in-the-sky itself; after all, there are no commercial LTE networks operating anywhere in the world today, and Dan Hesse still believes he has a two-year advantage over LTE regardless. And that could be true. But what impresses me here is that LTE is the natural upgrade path for GSM/UMTS/HSPA, and the installed base of this community is simply massive. The marketing power of the GSM family, 80% of the world's installed base of cellular, is equally impressive. Verizon Wireless, today a CDMA carrier, is going with LTE, as will AT&T and T-Mobile.

There have been calls for a single standard in wireless since the early days, but they're more visible now, most notably from Ericsson, who one might think would be better served building equipment for multiple technologies. But we've never had a single standard ever in the history of cellular wide-area communications. There were at least nine different analog systems, and then CDMA, TDMA, and GSM in 2D digital. There are two key standards in 3G today, UMTS and CDMA2000, although there are a number of others recognized by the ITU, including, interestingly, WiMAX. Can we converge to a single wide-area-standard for 4G?

I think it's doubtful, but, if we did, that standard would be LTE. WiMAX would be frozen out. Simple as that. Whenever two technologies perform the same function, the one with the larger installed base wins. But, you say, LTE has no installed base. Yes, but its parents do. And technological excellence has little to do with the outcome. Marketing is more important than engineering, as is the global GSM community sticking together and not having to think about this.

The two-year advantage that Sprint believes it has could evaporate very quickly as the LTE guys start building gear. The battle's not over yet, but the handwriting may already be on the wall. WiMAX will survive for a long time, particularly in developing economies, but there may be no contest at all when it goes up against LTE.