Future of mobile broadband

While WiMAX and LTE are generally viewed as competing standards, the rival technologies for mobile broadband may eventually prove to be complementary.

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By  Administrator Published  November 8, 2008

While WiMAX and LTE are generally viewed as competing standards, the rival technologies for mobile broadband may eventually prove to be complementary.

Operators are looking to upgrade their services to provide more efficient and capable mobile broadband networks, and LTE and WiMAX are widely viewed as the two best options that can keep people in touch with the rest of the world while on the move.

WiMAX has been touted as the first truly fourth generation standard, but will it be superseded by LTE before it has time to establish itself?

There have been many battles between competing technologies over the years, as manufacturers look to cash in on the latest advances in technology by making their equipment the common standard.

If Mobile WiMAX fails to certify or takes longer to certify, LTE is considered as a strong competitor. - Girish Trivedi, deputy director, Frost and Sullivan.

The battle between the two favourites for fourth generation mobile technology has been compared to the video player battle between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS in the early 1980s, but does one standard have to triumph at the expense of the other?

The GSMA, including Asus, Dell, Ericsson, Telefónica Europe, Telecom Italia, TeliaSonera, T-Mobile, Toshiba and Vodafone threw its weight behind LTE last month, with the announcement that US$1 billion would be spent marketing its ‘Mobile Broadband' sticker for wirelessly enabled laptops.

Support for WiMAX has come mainly from computer companies, with Intel its biggest proponent and US operators AT&T and Sprint Nextel on the board of WiMAX forum.

But is it a simple case of choosing one or the other? Nortel backs both, describing WiMAX as an "exciting new technology that delivers high-speed access wirelessly, enabling fixed and mobile broadband services over large coverage areas" and LTE as "the next-generation network beyond 3G". Similarly, Nokia, through its Nokia Siemens venture is driving LTE forward, but the Finnish company is also on the board of the WiMAX forum.

Girish Trivedi, deputy director of analysts Frost and Sullivan, thinks the companies supporting each technology will play a key role. He says: "A technology with better ecosystem of developers leads to decline in prices for deployment.

"Once proven both technologies have potential to get pricing competitive if spectrum and ratified products are available as they have a competent partner ecosystem."

Supporting both is a strategy that makes sense to Robert Syputa, partner and senior analyst at Maravedis, a company specialising in WiMAX and broadband research. "Operators in general can support both standards because communications is increasingly IP-based - the same device and program interfaces, mobile and web-based portals, and content ride on WiMAX or LTE.

"The IP packets don't discriminate. Operator's services are increasingly being built to be delivered over IP, the network is an important decision but is not as critical: if devices support both it matters less what standard the system is based on than how well the network is suited to the particular spectrum and other deployment parameters."

First to market

Stephen Lightley, WiMAX marketing director, NEC Europe, says that WiMAX operators are trying to establish a firm base from which they can build their operations. "What we're seeing from operators that we're working with in the Far East is that they are using governmental authorities as anchor customers," he says.

They are really bringing those on as social infrastructure projects and as enterprise type approaches, and that social infrastructure is actually growing the offer into the medical sector and linking into retail and residential."

WiMAX has also been pegged as the technology of choice for developing markets, with Africa mentioned as the perfect environment for the "last mile" technology. In other continents, a number of networks have already started to roll WiMAX networks.

In late September, US wireless operator Sprint Nextel launched a commercial WiMAX broadband network in Baltimore under its Xohm brand, with plans to expand it to Chicago and Washington DC by the end of the year, and further networks planned for deployment in Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence.

LTE technology is not at the same stage as WiMAX, and is still undergoing trials to test the performance of the network and of devices. Bernhard Schaupp, senior consultant, radio access at Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), says that he expects end-to-end LTE trials to continue throughout next year, with a "commercial launch of data-centric services, not so much voice, big cities and urban areas," by 2010.

He adds that by 2011, operator service migration to LTE is anticipated.

Indeed, NSN claims it will be offering LTE-compatible base station hardware to more than ten major mobile operators in Europe, Asia and North America by the end of this year.

The vendor says it has upgraded its current ‘Flexi Multimode Base Station' kit to support future LTE technology, and that once the LTE standard is officially ratified, NSN claims that only a software upgrade will be required to make the base stations fully LTE functional. NSN adds that the software upgrade will be available in the second half of next year, ready for planned commercial LTE network rollouts from 2010.

The GSMA last month unveiled its $1 billion dollar plan to raise awareness of LTE-ready laptops and devices through a sticker campaign that was questioned by some analysts who thought it may have been better spent reducing the cost of the devices.

Only a few mobile devices are available for each technology, but both standards claim to have major vendors working hard towards releasing more. Schaupp says: "It's going according to the road map. In the beginning it will be data cards," he says.

Across the divide, Intel and four of the larger laptop manufacturers have teamed up to release the first WiMAX-enabled laptops on the US market, which the chipset manufacturer says will be available for customers to order online. Other manufacturers such as Dell, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are expected to release WiMAX laptops by next year.

Is the technology compatible?

Robert Syputa, partner and senior analyst at Maravedis, says: "The IEEE 802.16e/m and 3GPP/3GPP2 3G and LTE standards are being harmonized for hand off level operation between networks.  However, WiMAX and LTE remain individual standards that have differences in modulation methods.

"Several vendors now use the same hardware and software development platforms and say that about 90% of the designs are common between the two systems.  This convergence in designs is a trend that drives the next versions of the standards even closer together: 802.16m/j and LTE-Advanced, particularly the LTE-TDD version, will have approximately 95% of technology in common. Since the suppliers use software defined radio (SDR) hardware platforms for base stations and nodes/remote stations, ASNs and IMS and other infrastructure, the differences can be handled largely in software."

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