LTE vs. WiMAX: The 4G Wireless War

By  |  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.


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27 Comments For This Post

  1. Brian Prows Says:

    Excellent summary of the current ongoing mobile broadband wars.

    Your last paragraph regarding U.S. carrier reluctance to adopt mobile broadband technology is especially relevant. U.S. mobile carriers for years have fought change–from allowing off-deck mobile applications on their handsets to adopting faster mobile connectivity.

    As a result, mobile carriers in the U.S. failed to provide their customers with high quality voice and data service.

    The largest carriers–AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile–remind me of the U.S. auto industry. Detroit failed to introduce hybrids and other vehicles offering higher gas mileage and lower carbon emissions, and they’re now paying the price for poor product management decisions.

    Let’s hope U.S. mobile carriers will take the lead in mobile broadband regardless of the technology: WIMAX, LTE, Wi-Fi or a combination of standards. If so, mobile broadband users will finally experience the features and benefits of high speed mobile connectivity.

    Brian Prows, MobileBeyond

  2. Robert Malley Says:

    I think this article is seriously onesided. It says LTE will win and WiMX will lose. Today no human being on the planet has access to an LTE signal from a commercial network. 400 Million people have access to a a Mobile WiMAX (802.16e) signal from a commercial network. So in couple of years LTE proponents including this author believes LTE will overtake WiMAX, which is total rubbish based on ignorance of the complexities of rolling out a 4G technology like WiMAX or LTE. LTE does not have any global IOT testing efforts at the commericial level yet. Also 3G operators want to recoup their 3G investments before they roll it out. Also recently, many 3G operators like T MObile and Orange spoke out against quickly deploying LTE which requires a WiMAX like business model. So my expectation is WiMAX will lead LTE till 2015 in deployments and subscriber growth. Beyond that it is grossly unclear, it depends on which operators survive, which TEMs and chipset vendors survive. Today all WiMAX TEMs including Motorola, ALU that have been forced to bad mouth WiMAX to get business from LTE operators (it seems this is a precondition for some aggressive LTE operators) more revenues growth in WiMAX than in any of their other businesses. But they are afraid of the deep pocketed big operators. Also the WiMAX chipset ecosystem is much stronger than LTE because of the 3G IPR model based fears. So WiMAX that targets TDD spectrum and LTE and 3G that targets FDD spectrum will co-exist, but WiMAX will have the upper hand based on their overall innovation and breaking of wireless technology barriers and business models in the next 5 years.

  3. Robert Malley Says:

    Most of the web is filled with FUD about LTE winning because of all the operator announcements and the fact that it was developed in the 3G club of deep pocketed players. But reality is far from this. This is the same group players that predicted that WiFi will die because it is unlicensed and will have too much interference in 2002. Today WiFi devices sell even more than GSM handsets. So so much for big operators proclamations. I guarantee you. Cost is the key to success. WiMAX with TDD and a new business model has achieved the low costs they predicted 3G and LTE will not based on the plans they have announced so far.

  4. Ed Says:

    Another issue that is not looked at in the battle between Wimax and LTE has nothing to do with the technologies themselves but the way the underlying system is structured. One of the biggest problems with 3G now is the lack of backhaul to support the data traffic. This is why existing companies limit the type of traffic they will allow on their network because their network can not support open access. To make LTE work the entire backhaul network will need to be rebuilt to handle the new traffic structure in order for it to come close to ever having a chance. The existing reliance on T1’s for most tower connectivity will be a major hurtle to deploying LTE.

    New Wimax networks are being built from the start with backhaul in place to support the data traffic that is flowing across it. I foresee the cellular traffic actually being shifted onto the Wimax backhaul due to its large bandwidth. This will actually save the cellular operator money in the long run and allow more diverse services on the voice side as the bandwidth limitations will evaporate. Things like cellular video calls will quickly become a reality as the handsets already have most of the functionality to make this happen. All they need is the bandwidth to allow for it.

  5. Sheldon Says:

    The key to all of this is the backhaul. Sprint (Clearwire) has already indicated this is the major setback because of the need for fiberoptic lines to the Towers. It does not look good in any case now that Sprint has sold off it’s towers to a serviceing company. Verizon has FIOS and has been laying groundwork for the fiberoptic network to suport either Wimax or LTE. The next thing to consider is signal . Verizon Wireless will be using the 700mhz spectrum they won in the auction. The characteristics of this will allow longer distances between towers and better building penitration.

  6. wayne Says:

    nice aticle and nice debate going on here. i am kind of interested in this issue of LTE vs WiMax and i dont know much about networks. what am particularly curious about is of the two, which one has better coverage in terms of radius, lower cost and higher higher data transfer. i am looking at settin one up in a small town for an ISP!

  7. Young Ki Says:

    Hello all
    I guess nothing wrong with LTE or WiMax add on their Network.
    Anyway the engineer will make it work but how much use $$$$$.
    Thw WiMax is better Technology then LTE.
    However Wimax who owned technology? I guess Samsung.
    The Chinese telecom. they don’t want to pay loralty to using Samsung technologies and don’t want see WiMax technology be as Global standrad by Samsung.Therefore Chinese wireless telecom conpanies choose LTE Technology.
    The AT&T and T-mobile they need to go wuth LTE because they are using GSM now.
    The Verizon very unlikely choose LTE. Let see how they are doing next couple years.

    Young , From Los Angeles, CA

  8. Muller Says:

    Who developed or better say will LTE? And some companies are already training LTE RF design classes is it worth the risk? Thanks you all

  9. bob Says:

    The whole title is misleading. Neither LTE or mobile WiMax is 4G.

    Wikipedia for example relates what are the internationally agreed parameters for 4G. Most obvious is the minimum requirement for 100Mbps.

    4G refers to the fourth generation of cellular wireless and is a successor to 3G and 2G standards….associates 4G with International Mobile Telecommunications-Advanced (IMT Advanced), though 4G is a broader term and could include standards outside IMT-Advanced. A 4G system may upgrade existing communication networks and is expected to provide a comprehensive and secure IP based solution where facilities such as voice, data and streamed multimedia will be provided to users on an “Anytime, Anywhere” basis and at much higher data rates compared to previous generations.

    4G is being developed to accommodate the QoS and rate requirements set by forthcoming applications like wireless broadband access, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), video chat, mobile TV, HDTV content, Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB), minimal services like voice and data, and other services that utilize bandwidth.

    The 4G working group has defined the following as objectives of the 4G wireless communication standard:

    A spectrally efficient system (in bits/s/Hz and bits/s/Hz/site),[1]
    High network capacity: more simultaneous users per cell,[2]
    A nominal data rate of 100 Mbit/s while the client physically moves at high speeds relative to the station, and 1 Gbit/s while client and station are in relatively fixed positions as defined by the ITU-R,[3]
    A data rate of at least 100 Mbit/s between any two points in the world,[3]
    Smooth handoff across heterogeneous networks,[4]
    Seamless connectivity and global roaming across multiple networks,[5]
    High quality of service for next generation multimedia support (real time audio, high speed data, HDTV video content, mobile TV, etc)[5]
    Interoperability with existing wireless standards,[6] and
    An all IP, packet switched network.[5]

  10. pre Says:

    This article is so biased its painful this should not be considered a legitimate source for information on wimax or lte it just jumps to the conclusion that wimax will not succeed but there are many things in this article that are not only misleading but even wrong.
    I thought i was going to have to spend a good deal of time pointing them all out and giving correct information to anyone that bothered to read the comments but others have already beat my to it and did a better job than i could have so please if your read my post and not the others simply because it was short go back see read the comments that were written by people that know far more than Afzal Bajwa(the writer) about this particular subject and don’t have a strange biased that supports an unproven technology that isn’t even in use. (CDMA kicks GSM and UMTS’ ass)

  11. suleman Says:

    I think LTE is hot in the industry. that is why we are getting lots of request for LTE trainings from operators and vendors.

  12. suleman Says:

    I think LTE is hot in the industry that is why we are getting a lot of requests for LTE trainings from operators and vendors.

  13. Omg Says:

    Completely biased review, I totally agree with Robert Malley.

  14. guarionex88 Says:

    This article is one of the worst i’ve read on the subject of LTE vs WiMAX. The hype surrounding LTE has captured the writer to the point that reason and facts are disregarded. I will not repeat many of the fine points that others here have mentioned. I will add that WiMAX as an emerging technology was built from the bottom up to answer the many technical problems associated with both fixed and mobile wireless systems over a 10 year period by thousands of engineers around the world. LTE has the support of incumbent cellco providers backed by Qualcomm who all desire to keep things as they are and hit the consumer with vaporware.

    These are the same companies that have opposed every innovation since the Internet itself from the 70’s through the 90’s. Let’s not forget that AT&T opposed the Internet’s development in the US in favor of point to point stat muxes over leased lines. Verizon is the present day aggregation of several companies all who failed to lead in this most important area. If we were to leave it to the Qualcomms and Verizons of the world we will be waiting for many years before true wireless broadband access is offered at a reasonable cost to consumers.

    The fact is that LTE is a defensive action near cynical in nature that attempts to hoodwink people into waiting for the cellco incumbents to get their act together. The level of interoperability of devices and multi spectrum compatibility that WiMAX has over LTE combined with its lower capital and operating expense (CAPEX & OPEX) costs will catapult WiMAX over LTE in usage around the globe.

  15. Ziddu-me Says:

    interesting topic, I think the most important are low cost, high coverage, easy to implement and not only fast but reliable data transmission ^_^
    I think WiMax will win

  16. k. m-pour Says:

    It is very good debate, but the market info, and technological data for both LTE and Wimax are not adequate to compare. It is better to have somr info from different brand and operators to make comparision well.

  17. Vic Ellescas Says:

    I believe Wimax is the better option for the consumer. It’s like having Wifi on any spot on the world. Free text and email anyone and VOIP? Yes, Telco’s does like that. They will lose their gold mine. It’s like MSWindows vs Linux -open source vs closed. Don’t let these control freaks put PID on you.

  18. LTE Says:

    just to update
    wateen pakistan has started getting reasonable success as Wimax ISP

    witribe pakistan, formally buraaq telecom has luanched WiMax ( fixed and usb based ), better planned then wateen and are selling 600-700 connections a day. a 1Mb USB wimax device is getting download speed of around 90-100kBps with city wide coverage and no drop outs.

    mobilink pakistan wimax is heard to be doin horrible

  19. Yellow Captain Says:

    The WiMAX 4G operates in Moscow, St Petersburg and Ufa (Russia) as Yota Co. from January, 2009.

  20. george Says:

    How is it possible to compare an existing technology with one that is still in a concept state. This is a clear attempt for the big boys to surppress a technology that they have no control and can operate at any scale. telecom with evolve into two distinct endevours, the pipe (last mile, bandwidth etc )and what ride on it (programs, applications ) with IP protocal giving universal interconnectivity small operators can comfortablely exist. There is nothing to compare, WIMAX exists LTE is still a concept, with no accepted standard, and is not operational anywhere.

  21. Johnny b Says:

    Many years in Russia people were waiting for 3G, but it turned out that somehow it is much easier for one rather small WiMax company to create a working network, than to mobile telecomunication giants to fix technical issues. That is why I doubt that LTE will win this competition in Russia. Besides Russian Military Officials askinG 2 Billion Dullars on reconstraction works related with frequency changing for LTE standard.

  22. Russ Says:

    It is interesting how this article is slanted to one side which is ok if you believe in LTE or WIMAX for that matter. The bottomline comes down to this, can either of these provide the internet service that the consumer wants. They are looking for something they can log into no matter where they are in the world and pay a low cost for that service. How it is achieved will be the question, at this time no one company is willing to put up the money to make that happen. This is due to many factors, government involment and corporate exposure and just ROI. Will it be cost effective? Any company that invests in emotions because someone thinks it is a good idea, knows it is not a sound way of doing business. No matter what company brings true wireless to the world first there will be Plenty to go around for the others. Hence everyone is waiting for the other to do so they (corporation) will not have to fork out the R&D funds to develop it.

  23. Indy Says:

    Robert, I have seen your comments about WiMax in various posts and would like to get in contsct with you. Please contact me at

  24. Indy Says:

    Robert Malley, I have seen your comments about WiMax in various posts and would like to get in contsct with you. Please contact me at

  25. nati Says:

    the reason i bet against LTE is that, on paper it’s way better when compared to wimax.
    so far in history of technologies, the winners were not the superior technologies but rather the technologies that spread out faster.

    LTE is a fictitious technology that is doomed to stay on paper as a draft. meanwhile wimax is being deployed all around the world.

    thats the way things are.

    from my POV the buzz around LTE seems too artificial and played by some interest groups.

  26. Jsparco Says:

    The 4G wireless war will end when the competition gets to low.
    We just saw the merger of t-mobile and at&t.
    If Verizon needs to compete, they will need to purchase a smaller company to get equal numbers.
    Orlando Computer Rentals

  27. abdul Says:

    NOW Wimax is the better option for BANGLADESH.I USE qubee wimax…..thanks

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