Where does Wi-Fi fit in a 4G world?

* Techs contend to become the future mobile superhighway

Several wireless technologies are contending to become the next-generation transport system for mobile video and collaborative business applications and services. The frontrunners in the WAN are WiMAX and Long-Term Evolution (LTE).

Qualcomm’s Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) technology is a distant third, despite its aspirations to run at more than 200Mbps, more than twice the eventual intended speeds of LTE and WiMAX (Compare WiMAX products). In a report late last year, ABI Research cited UMB’s lack of a robust partner ecosystem, which LTE and WiMAX have both established, as one reason for describing UMB’s prospects as “dim.”

Both LTE and WiMAX make use of smart antenna capabilities and IP technology. And they both aspire to become available worldwide, albeit at different paces. Ultimately, some dual-mode devices might support both LTE and WiMAX, with the user unaware of which network is serving his or her data needs at a given moment.

At that juncture, what becomes of Wi-Fi? It could find mobile WAN technologies a threat, particularly if in-building femtocells, picocells and other base stations catch on. This just might happen, too, if for no other reason than enterprises are likely to be required to install in-building mobile WAN systems to comply with wireless public-safety mandates anyway.

Some vendors envision Wi-Fi in the access network and WiMAX/LTE in the backhaul portion of the network. Yet mobile WAN progress is forging ahead in the access network, too: makers of multi-frequency distributed antenna systems, such as LGC Wireless and MobileAccess, have added WiMAX modules to their systems. On the client side, Intel’s Montevina notebook platform, with optional embedded dual-mode Wi-Fi and WiMAX connections, is due to ship this month.

It’s likely that all these wireless networks will prevail for some application or another. Even though it’s hard to imagine ever needing still greater capacity - heck, even high-end telepresence systems from Cisco only require 15Mbps - getting more bandwidth over short distances is always achievable first. So mobile LANs will likely always be around.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.