By Afzal Bajwa | Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 7:46 am
Remember when 3G was the future of wireless data? It’s not even universally available in the U.S. yet, and the race is already well underway to replace it. WiMAX, the 4G network technology that counts Sprint and Intel among its boosters, has a head start. But it’s losing ground to Long Term Evolution (LTE).
LTE’s promise of high-speed, two-way wireless data promises an “all-IP” mode of communications in which voice calls are handled via VoIP. It’s also designed to handle video well, and to permit roaming through multiple systems–from cellular to Wi-Fi and satellite.
LTE is considered by many to be the obvious successor to current-generation 3G technologies, based on WCDMA, HSDPA, HSUPA and HSPA, in part because it updates UMTS technology to provide significantly faster data rates for both uploading and downloading, while preserving backwards compatibility with existing handsets based on older standards. Verizon Wireless, has already said that it will support LTE as its 4G technology of choice, abandoning its current CDMA based network.
Speed, theoretically superior to WiMAX, would give LTE an edge for bandwidth-hungry applications such as live TV and video downloads. LTE handsets are also expected to embrace automatic roaming to non-cellular systems, such as Wi-Fi and satellite.
It’s true that WiMAX, unlike LTE, is available today–but it’s only in the early stages of rollout. (Sprint-backed Clearwire, the only company to roll out WiMAX in the U.. to date, offers service only in scattered areas in sixteen states.) Analysts express doubts that phone manufacturers, networking companies, app developers, operators, and carriers will ever make WiMAX a popular replacement for 2G or 2.75G facilities and services.
Still, WiMAX may endure–Clearwire has vowed to build a nationwide network. But the leisurely pace of its rollout indicates extra caution about the necessary investments. And Clearwire is controlled by Sprint, widely considered the weakest of the major U.S wireless carriers.
Whether they bet on LTE, WiMAX, or some combination of the two, major carriers, hardware companies, and other telecommunications players cannot postpone decisions about their 4G plans–even though it’s not yet clear how the competing technologies will sort themselves out. Investing mammoth amounts of money on building out what may be a temporary technology is high risk–especially during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression–but they can’t leave the market open to their competitors.
The matter of superiority, WiMAX vs. LTE, is mind-boggling to industry observers, even if it might not be to a genius, or to electrical and wireless engineers. Innovation advocates might see LTE as a natural evolution of technology. Yet some technology writers have described it as unusual, in the logical sequence of technological advancement. At least, the adoption of LTE shows that the best decision, in the acceleration of wireless-connectivity technology, is not to wait for the economic recession to hit rock bottom or reverse.
The CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas last month made the industry’s 4G road map a bit clearer. Most players, including Motorola and Verizon, said that they would go straight to LTE without touching WiMAX. Nokia, went further: According to a Financial Times report, Anssi Vanjoki, Nokia’s head of sales and manufacturing, compared WiMAX’s prospects to those of Betamax.
Worldwide, LTE’s prospects look promising. Some observers say that China will go directly to LTE, bypassing WiMAX. Major Chinese telecommunications players, including China Mobile and Huawei, are believed to be working hard to step up to LTE in a year or two.
My home, Pakistan, would also benefit from LTE. Currently, almost all the mobile operators, including the formerly state-owned landline monopoly Pakistan Telecommunication Company (PTCL), have flooded the consumer market with phones, cameras, music players, and USB modems that use a form of connectivity that’s similar to WiMAX but slower. These devices in Pakistan offer Internet connectivity of 300-kbs. Companies such as Wateen Telecom of the United Arab Emirates have tried to offer WiMAX, but without much success; but hardly succeeded; PTCL has tried a package of cellular connectivity, satellite TV, and broadband Internet that is also far from a success so far. China Mobile is one of the five major mobile operators in Pakistan, and other Chinese companies such as ZTE and Huawei are major players, so Pakistan’s 4G future will likely mirror that of China.
Countries such as Sweden and Finland, which are small but well-developed and technology-rich can benefit from this transitional period of wireless technologies, during which 3G, WiMAX, and LTE will coexists. Examples could be Sweden, with rich file-sharing experience, and Finland, with Nokia having early experimentation on real time interactive videos. Next in line are rapidly developing countries, including China, India, and Pakistan.
The U.S., a traditional leader in innovation and technological advancement, may struggle to adopt 4G as rapidly as other countries. Why? One reason is the difficulty of ramping up LTE during a period of recession. Another is the indecisiveness of U.S. industry heavyweights about next-generation standards. But even if the U.S.’s 4G future is somewhat murky, wireless connectivity is bound to evolve towards higher speed, great traffic capacity and more reliable connections.