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The state of 4G in 2010

WiMAX this year, LTE in 2011

By Brad Reed, Network World
March 08, 2010 12:08 AM ET

Network World - If you were to think of 4G wireless technologies as Harry Potter movies, then the first half of 2010 promises to be like the time spent waiting in between new releases. You can expect lots of exciting trailers and teasers that will tide you over, but don't expect to see any real action until the latter half of the year.

By the end of 2010, Clearwire plans to have built out its 4G WiMAX network to all major markets in the United States and Verizon expects to be offering its 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services commercially in between 25 to 30 major U.S. markets. Additionally, the GSM Association is hoping that its work on Voice over LTE (VoLTE) will be nearly finished and that LTE devices will have the ability to support voice and Short Message Service sometime in 2011.

4G technologies represent the next stage in the evolution of wireless data technologies and generally deliver average download rates of 3Mbps or higher. In contrast, today's 3G networks typically deliver average download speeds about one-tenth of that rate.  

A 4G early adopter's tale  

Broadly speaking, users will get 4G wireless connectivity through one of two standards, WiMAX or LTE. WiMAX is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard and will be deployed by Clearwire for wholesale use by Sprint, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable to deliver wireless broadband. LTE, on the other hand, is a GSM-based technology that will be deployed by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Let's start with Clearwire. The company has commercial WiMAX services available in 27 U.S. markets covering more than 34 million points of presence (POPs). By year-end,  Clearwire will have built out a WiMAX network that spans all major U.S. markets and that covers 120 million POPs. So if your business is in a major metropolitan area it's very likely that you'll be able to access Clearwire's 4G network by the end of the year.

You won't likely know that you're getting your service through Clearwire, however. The company's plan is to build out the network and then wholesale access to companies with bigger brand names such as Sprint, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable. Clearwire is counting on these companies to aggressively promote its WiMAX services, especially since WiMAX is currently the fastest wireless technology available on the market. Clearwire's wholesale partners have also played a big role in funding the buildout of the network, as Clearwire raised $3.2 billion from its big cable partners as well as from big-name tech companies such as Google and Intel.

"Our wholesale business is going through extraordinary growth right now," says Clearwire Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert. "We ended up with more than 46,000 wholesale customers by the end of the fourth quarter last year and we're on pace to do significantly more than that this quarter. We've got Comcast, Sprint and Time-Warner Cable as our active wholesale partners and we believe that selling through those partnerships will be the primary growth strategy for our business.

Verizon's LTE plans

Unlike Clearwire, Verizon won't have a coast-to-coast 4G network ready to go by year-end. However, it does plan to have its LTE network up and running in up to 30 major markets with many more to come in 2011. Tony Melone, the executive vice president and CTO of Verizon Wireless, says that the company has spent the past year getting its 4G infrastructure ready to go online later this year, including its antennas, backhaul and leasing work with tower owners.

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