Is LTE the next must-have mobile broadband technology?

4G technology attracts Verizon and AT&T-- and a lot of hype

A look at LTE's enterprise potential, and how it stacks up against WiMAX.

Long Term Evolution (LTE)-based services are garnering a lot of attention in the mobile broadband industry, despite the fact that they are at least two years away from being deployed.

LTE, considered by many analysts to be the next big wave in 4G wireless technology, is due to be launched commercially in 2010 by Verizon and AT&T, roughly two years after the Clearwire coalition’s big commercial WiMAX launch slated for later this year.

Technically speaking, LTE is a modulation technique that is the latest variation of Global Systems for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology. Its developers at the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) dubbed it “Long Term Evolution” because they view it as the natural progression of High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA), the GSM technology that is currently used by carriers such as AT&T to deliver 3G mobile broadband.

The evolution of LTE

GSM is by far the dominant mobile standard worldwide, with more the 2 billion global customers. In the United States, however, the only carriers that currently use GSM are AT&T and T-Mobile. Carriers Verizon and Sprint both use the rival Code Division for Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, although Verizon is due to move over to the GSM side when it launches its own LTE network sometime in 2010.

While it is far too early to predict how successful LTE will be in the enterprise market, recent trends indicate that demand for the technology could get a significant boost as businesses demand ever-faster mobile broadband access. For instance, a recent survey conducted by market research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey reports that nearly half of all enterprises currently use 3G cellular services, and that more than one-third plan on using WiMAX technology within the next year.

The major reasons for deploying mobile enterprise applications, the survey finds, include increased employee productivity and increased employee availability, as more than 80% of corporate users list both of them as key reasons for using more mobile technologies. If demand for increased mobile broadband speeds continues to be strong, LTE could be in a good position to compete with WiMAX as a widely deployed mobile broadband standard when it comes to market in 2010.

“We’re seeing some indications that enterprises are beginning to look at wireless broadband as extension of the network itself,” says Mike Jude, an analyst at Nemertes Research. “They’re starting to think about how to enable mobile networks with access to company applications such as enterprise research planning, customer relationship management and inventory.”

What makes LTE so special?

Although LTE-enabled devices won’t hit the markets for at least two years after WiMAX-enabled devices, LTE does have some key advantages that could help bring it up to speed with rival technologies such as WiMAX and the CDMA-based Ultra Mobile Broadband. In the first place, LTE has been adopted as the 4G technology of choice by every major wireless carrier in the United States except for Sprint Nextel. Indeed, Verizon and AT&T think so much of LTE’s potential to deliver high-speed mobile broadband that they each plan to dedicate spectrum they recently acquired in the 700MHz auction to LTE deployment.

“LTE is a very natural evolution from where we are now,” says AT&T Wireless spokesman Mark Siegel, who notes that AT&T is the only major U.S. wireless carrier to currently use LTE predecessor HSPA for its 3G technology. “We still have a lot of room to build out our HSPA network before we have to go to LTE. When we do eventually make the switch, it will be backward compatible with our 3G technology, whereas Sprint and Verizon will need to make a much more abrupt transition from where they are now with their 3G technologies.”

According to Jude, the ability for AT&T and T-Mobile to transition from one level of a GSM network to another will give them an edge over the Clearwire WiMAX network, which will have to be backwards-compatible with Sprint's legacy CDMA technology. Jude also says that AT&T and T-Mobile also might have a slight leg up on Verizon, which will have to make LTE backwards-compatible with its current CDMA technology. Qualcomm is working on a chipset that will make LTE backwards-compatible with CDMA devices, a development that could help CDMA-based carriers make a smooth connection between their 3G and 4G networks.

And since it will take a long time to build and deploy LTE networks with nationwide coverage, says Forrester analyst Charles Golvin, it will be crucial that LTE users be able to seamlessly switch back to HSPA technology if they find themselves out of range of the 4G network. And since LTE will have the support of a large number of carriers that use the GSM standard, LTE users will be able to take advantage of trans-carrier agreements that could lessen their monthly roaming charges.

“That ability to hand off service is very important in today’s environment,” says Golvin. “We have an expectation in ubiquity in service.”

How will LTE stack up against WiMAX?

Before making any comparisons between LTE and WiMAX, says Golvin, it’s important to note a key distinction: WiMAX is able to deliver high-speed data today, while LTE is not. Thus, it’s difficult to compare a technology that is already up and running with a technology that is still in the standards process.

Additionally, notes Gartner analyst Phil Redman, LTE shouldn’t be compared to WiMAX in its current incarnation. In all likelihood, he says, LTE will be deployed at around the time that WiMAX has upgraded to the 802.16m standard, which is expected to deliver download speeds of 100Mbps for mobile applications. From this perspective, LTE and WiMAX stack up very well against one another, since LTE is also expected to deliver peak download speeds of 100Mbps.

The big issue, then, might not be which technology delivers faster data speeds but which one is most widely available. In terms of having more carriers to work with, LTE is clearly well ahead of WiMAX in the United States. Additionally, LTE currently has an advantage over WiMAX in that it’s designed to be compatible with both Time Division Duplex (TDD) and Frequency Division Duplex (FDD), the two main legacy techniques for dividing downlink and uplink communication channels on the same transmission platform. WiMAX, on the other hand, is only compatible with TDD so far.

Why is this important? Because, notes Golvin, LTE will have more spectrum at its disposal using both TDD and FDD than WiMAX will have with TDD alone. While TDD sends uplink and downlink data transfers through one single channel over unpaired spectrum, FDD gives uplink and downlink data transfers through two separate channels over paired spectrum.

This is crucial, notes Golvin, because many valuable spectrum licenses, such as most of those recently sold off in the 700MHz auction, are paired spectrum licenses that are only compatible with FDD. According to reports published earlier this year, the WiMAX Forum is quietly working on a profile for mobile WiMAX that incorporates FDD, although the group has so far been mum on when it expects this profile to be completed.

Even so, says Jude, WiMAX has at least a two-year time-to-market advantage in which it will be virtually alone in the 4G market. If the recently formed Clearwire coalition is successful at locking customers into high-speed mobile broadband contracts, and if WiMAX can expand the range of spectrum it’s available on, Jude says it could get a good head start before LTE comes along in 2010.

“WiMAX may find a niche in rural areas because it allows people to work extreme distances from cell sites,” he says. “But ultimately, it’s all about the footprint. The challenge for Sprint and Clearwire is whether they can get into a substantial number of big markets quickly enough to lock in subscribers.”

Learn more about this topic

Can the Clearwire coalition save WiMAX?

Alltel hops aboard the LTE bandwagon

Verizon to use 700MHz spectrum for LTE network

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.