WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+: who cares who wins?

“We must stop the confusion about which technology is going to win; it achieves nothing positive and risks damage to the entire industry.”

Anyone among the curious band of people who track articles about the status of mobile broadband (and the chances are that you are one of them) will have noticed an interesting trend over the past 18 months: the temperature of the debate about the technology most likely to succeed is rising rapidly. Increasingly polarised articles are published on a daily basis, each arguing that Long Term Evolution (LTE) is the 4G technology of choice, or that WiMAX is racing ahead, or that it’s best to stick with good old 3GPP because HSPA+ is going to beat both of them. It remains surprising that their articles invite us, their readers, to focus slavishly on the question “WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+: which one will win?”

The question that we should ask of the authors is “Who cares who wins?” The torrent of propaganda washes over the essence of mobile broadband and puts sustained growth in the mobile industry at risk. By generating fear, uncertainty and doubt, the mobile broadband “battle” diverts attention away from the critical issues that will determine the success or failure of these evolving technologies.  The traditional weapon of the partisan author is the mighty “Mbps”; each wields their peak data rates to savage their opponents.

In the HSPA+ camp, authors fire out theoretical peak data rates of 42Mbps DL and 23 Mbps UL. The WiMAX forces respond with theoretical peak data rates of 75Mbps DL and 30Mbps UL. LTE joins the fray by unleashing its theoretical peak data rates of 300Mbps DL and 75 Mbps UL. All hell breaks loose, or so it would appear. Were it not for the inclusion of the word “theoretical”, we could all go home to sleep soundly and wake refreshed, safe in the knowledge that might is right. The reality is very different.

Sprint has stated that it intends to deliver services at between 2 and 4 Mbps to its customers with Mobile WiMAX. In the real world, HSPA+ and LTE are likely to give their users single digit Mbps download speeds.  Away from the theoretical peak data rates, the reality is that the technologies will be comparable with each other, at least in the experience of the user. These data rates, from a user’s perspective, are a great improvement on what you will see while sitting at home on your WiFi or surfing the web while on a train. The problem is that the message being put out to the wider population has the same annoying ringtone as those wild claims that were made about 3G and the new world order that it would usher in. Can you remember the allure of video calls? Can you remember the last time you actually saw someone making a video call?

3G has transformed the way that people think about and use their mobile phones, but not in the way that they were told to expect. In the case of 3G, mismanagement of customer expectations put our industry back years. We cannot afford to repeat this mistake with mobile broadband. Disappointed customers spend less money because they don’t value their experience as highly as they had been led to expect by advertisers.  Disappointed customers share their experience with friends and family, who delay buying into the mobile broadband world.  What we all want are ecstatic customers who can’t help but show off their device. We need to produce a ‘Wow’ factor that generates momentum in the market.

Every pundit has a pet theory about the likely deployment of mobile broadband technologies. One will claim that HSPA+ might delay the deployment of LTE. Another will posit that WiMAX might be adopted, predominantly, in the laptop or netbook market. A third will insist that LTE could replace large swathes of legacy technologies.  These scenarios might happen, but they might not, too.

More likely, but less stirring, is the prediction that they are all coming, they’ll be rolled out to hundreds of millions of subscribers and, within five years, will be widespread. We must stop the confusion about which technology is going to win; it achieves nothing positive and risks damage to the entire industry.

Confusion unsettles investors, who move to other markets and starve us of the R&D funds needed to deliver mobile broadband. At street level, confusion leads early adopters to hold off making commitments to the new wave of technology while they “wait it out” to ensure they don’t buy a Betamax instead of a VHS.  Where we should focus, urgently, is on the two topics that demand open discussion and debate. First, are we taking the delivery of a winning user experience seriously? Secondly, are we making plans to cope with the data tidal wave that will follow a successful launch?

The first topic concerns delivery to the end user of a seamless application experience that successfully converts the improved data rates to improvements on their device. This can mean anything from getting LAN-like speeds for faster email downloads through to slick, content-rich and location-aware applications. As we launch mobile broadband technologies, we must ensure that new applications and capabilities are robust and stable. More effort must be spent developing and testing applications so that the end user is blown away by their performance.

The second topic, the tidal wave of data, should force us to be realistic about the strain placed on core networks by an exponential increase in data traffic. We have seen 10x increases in traffic since smartphones began to boom. Mobile device makers, network equipment manufacturers and application developers must accept that there will be capacity shortages in the short term and, in response, must design, build and test applications rigorously. We need applications with realistic data throughput requirements and the ability to catch data greedy applications before they reach the network.

In Anite, we see the demands placed on test equipment by mobile broadband technologies at first hand. More than testing the technical integrity of the protocol stack and its conformance to the core specifications, we produce new tools that test applications and simulate the effects of anticipated capacity bottlenecks. Responding to the increased demand for mobile applications, we’re developing test coverage that measures applications at the end-user level. Unfortunately, not everyone is thinking that far ahead. Applications that should be “Wow”, in theory, may end up producing little more than a murmur of disappointment in the real world.

So, for the sake of our long-term prospects, let’s stop this nonsense about how one technology trounces another. Important people, the end users, simply do not care.  WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+ will all be widely deployed. As an industry, our energy needs to be focused on delivering services and applications that exceed the customer expectations.  Rather than fighting, we should be learning from each other’s experiences.  If we do that, our customers will reward us with growing demand. If we all get sustained growth, then don’t we all win..?

Dominic Rowles is business unit director at test and measurement firm Anite

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  1. Avatar Mike Demler 02/06/2009 @ 8:34 pm

    Amen.. Amen.. AMEN!!!
    I just posted the same sentiments on my blog: The WiMax vs. LTE “battle” is nothing but media sensationalism, at The World is Analog

  2. Avatar john se 26/03/2010 @ 1:43 pm

    the three easily offer the speed we want but coverage, price(subscription), & hardware bottlenecks are the main focus . all companies share and use the same ingredients, mix in patents and competition is dead . ex. sony psp & iphone-
    business = location location location,
    cell phones = hype hype hype

    stock holders vs customers, gambling vs sure thing, 2 years ahead vs 10, scalability vs…

  3. Avatar this article is ridiculous 24/09/2010 @ 8:40 am

    Everyone should be concerned about which technology is better because there is a freedom of choice in this country and knowledge is power. To totally disregard the differences in these technologies defeats the purpose of a capitalist society where competition between different companies breeds better products for the end user. Isn’t that the whole point in the first place? You’re asking people to just be satisfied with any comparable technology when there are clear advantages and disadvantages to each… You should be blaming the companies for misleading consumers with 3g advertisements, not the consumers themselves… People are always going to try to get the best for their money, why should they do otherwise. Furthermore, I don’t agree with the whole 3g letdown. The way you explain it sounds like a great depression. So not many people use video calling… who cares? Its not so much because of the network or 3g but because its just not practical for MOST people. I have a 3g phone and I actually do make frequent video calls. In my opinion, 3g has totally transformed how people use their phone. Look at the last big revolution of phone sales from the Motorola razr to the iPhone… very big difference. Seems to me that you have been stuck on the losing end of the phone technology battles each time and you’re getting tired of it… just keep in mind that there are others who did their due diligent research and come out satisfied with each purchase.

  4. Avatar James 02/11/2010 @ 8:24 am

    LTE and Wimax are 4G technologies but aren’t up to 4G speeds(yet). The HSPA+ Network will never have 4g speeds nor does it have the technology to be called even an entry to 4G. While yes, Sprints wimax and Verizons LTE will not provide the ITU Standard of 4G sppeds, the radios inside the EVO and whatever Verizon releases as 4G, will be capable of receiving the speeds of 4G. When the Wimax is updated to 802.16m and LTE makes the move to LTE Advanced they will meet the 100mbps down standard. The Evo is a 4g capable device even though it is not currently receiving the standard speeds set by the ITU for a 4G device. The reason T-Mobiles HSPA+ is “said” to be providing “4G like speeds” is Because people are under the impression that Sprints current release of Wimax(802.16e) is 4G and then comparing the speeds with T-Mobiles HSPA+ Network. Yes the Evo Will be able to receive the 4G speeds of Wimax 802.16m’s network when its released through a simple software upgrade. (By the time its released you could argue that the Evo will be a very outdated device). Where the Mytouch 4G will not nor will it ever be 4G Capable. It really just comes down to semantics but technically Sprint, and soon Verizon, can call their networks 4G because they are 4G technologies. SEMANTICS and Marketing are what it really comes down to but just wanted to put this information out for anyone wondering so they can have it to reference! Just putting out the facts, take them with a grain of salt because it will be awhile before we really get those true 4G speeds from any of the networks. FYI LTE Advanced and Wimax 802.16m are slated for Q4 2011-Q3 2012(I expect some serious delays though).

    • Avatar James 03/11/2010 @ 2:20 pm

      this was the best explanation of 4G I think I have ever read.

    • Avatar Reno 07/04/2011 @ 8:08 pm

      “The HSPA+ Network will never have 4g speeds nor does it have the technology to be called even an entry to 4G”

      Yes but the speeds it CAN achieve are more than adequate for the common user. People get to wrapped up in how fast a car can go without ever really asking, “Do I need to go that fast?”. My Inspire pre HSUPA radio activation, pre advanced backhaul, can still stream an HD movie trailer quite nicely.

    • Avatar Alex 20/04/2011 @ 5:29 am

      4G is a term of art invented by the scientific body that is the equivalent of the French language police (you know, the Academie Francaise that tells French speaking people what words they can and can’t use, because it may or may not be proper French). So this body decides that “4G” is only that technology that can attain a certain download speed. Well, la-ti-da!

      For most NORMAL people, saying something is 2g or 3g or 4g just means there is an appreciable difference in speed from the last “g”. I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass that Verizon and Sprint are getting so whiny and bent out of shape because T-Mobile decided to call their technology “4G”. Just because the Acadamie Francaise says you have to say “baladeur” instead of “walkman”, doesn’t mean that you can’t use your common sense and just call a walkman a walkman. For all practical intents and purposes, T-Mobile has 4G.

      Now let me ask you all, how many of you still have the phone you bought 3 years ago? 2 years ago? All this overwrought and belabored whining that only Verizon or Sprint will be able to deliver “true” 4G speeds in a couple of years is POINTLESS right now, when most people who care about this stuff don’t own phones for more than a couple years, IF THAT. So WHAT if I buy a T-Mobile phone right now that can never achieve a theoretical 100 MBS download speed IN TWO YEARS. By that time, I’ll be on to the next phone, ANYWAYS!!

      My sympathies are all with T-Mobile. It’s like someone trying to sell you a “super fast German sports car” by selling you the body of a Porsche but with the engine of a Volkswagon Golf, promising you’ll get the engine of a Porsche in 15 years, and then getting mad when the owner of an actual Volkswagon Golf tries to also market his car as a “super fast German sports car” (“that car will never get a Porsche engine in 15 years!”). Well, who the F cares, when I will be buying another car anyways in 15 years, and the Golf drives just as fast as the “Porsche”?

  5. Avatar hazim ahmadi 09/11/2010 @ 7:42 am

    in reality, users mostly just use their smart phone to access email or social networking update status. So why should we spend much money to buy newer handset to access those technologies that provide not better experiences?

  6. Avatar BNB 17/11/2010 @ 11:16 pm

    I believe these technologies (LTE and WiMax)will benefit more by providing fast internet service to homes where there are 100 of millions of WIFI devices waiting.

    People are fed up with the cable companies and want to combine wireless phone services and cable and home internet into one package.

  7. Avatar Michael 27/11/2010 @ 7:33 pm

    It doesn’t hurt when we do comparisons between different technologies, especially for those of us craving for information. What we have learned over time is that different technologies can succeed concurrently with one another and can at one point be made compatible using new technologies.

    Recently, Broadcom purchased a company called Beceem, which is a leading 4G chip manufacturing. Beceem has developed a chip that allows Wimax and Lte radios to function with one another.

    Industry trends indicate that Wimax 2 and Lte-Advanced will be the standard platforms of the future. Since Wimax and Lte are 85% similar technologies I would surmise that future mobile devices will both Wimax and Lte compatible. If different frequency bands are to be compatible with Lte why not also with Wimax?

  8. Avatar Ron Fell 02/12/2010 @ 2:28 am

    Clearly there will be differences in the “4G” technologies but those differences will drastically vary from user to user, moment to moment and location to location just like they do now.
    Ultimately it will come down to which carrier has the best handsets, customer service and prices. (Pick your order)

  9. Avatar Q b 03/12/2010 @ 1:56 am

    Europe and Asia have had video calling capability over mobile phones since 2004…and here we are in 2010 having it introduced here in the US. Broadband speeds over cellular networks in those parts of the world were available even prior to 2004. The mobile technology in the US will always lag the global technology. T-mobile has the right idea…stick with the preferred global solution!

    • Avatar daaand 27/01/2011 @ 2:06 pm

      So in conclusion, you’re an actual T-Mobile employee? Thanks for the contribution. Really adds to the conversation.

  10. Avatar PingLots 30/01/2011 @ 7:17 am

    It’s like VHS vs Beta videos back in the day (yes, i’m old). You know one has better quality and is superior, but will it win out? Time will only tell, but my guess is that the band that offers the cheaper tools will more than likely win. Not sure if this is good or bad?

  11. Avatar ExistentialEnso 09/03/2011 @ 8:37 pm

    To be clear, LTE and WiMax are 3GPP-backed technologies, even if HSPA+ is their standard.

  12. Avatar Jade Bryan Jardinico 22/04/2011 @ 6:01 am

    Good article. Just to let you know that Japan and S. Korea have had already on 4G for years while other regions of Asia and Europe also achieved 4G technology for over a year now. But there in US it seems you are still in the stage of coping the tecg. Well, good luck to America.

    • Avatar Bob 24/06/2011 @ 9:21 pm

      Just to let you know, South Korea is about the size of the state of Maine. Not hard to jack up your tech infrastructure when you only have 100km^2 of land to wire up. We have 9.8 million km^2, in case you were wondering.

  13. Avatar Handy Pie Holder 29/06/2011 @ 12:04 pm

    All this 4G brouhaha is intended to get us all to ditch our landline broadband in favour of something we can cart around wherever we are. The same level of connectivity on the bus or on the sofa. From a user’s perspective, it doesn’t matter one iota what competing technology is employed to achieve this, provided the accessing device just gets on with providing connectivity and that the bill at the end of the month is less than 1% of incoming salary. All we want is cold beer and warm pizza. We don’t care how this comes about just as long as it doesn’t cost a fortune and involves no extra effort on our part.

  14. Avatar Isaa 17/07/2011 @ 2:30 pm

    Well, for sure we ARE moving towards LTE and every dick and harry who cares enough will ready himself when it lands!

  15. Avatar Matt 19/07/2011 @ 7:15 am

    I personally have a T-Mobile Galaxy S 4G, and I don’t see what all the war is about the 4G data backend. I stream videos and don’t see buffering and that’s pretty much all the common end user is going to care about. Who cares if it’s 100mbps or 20mbps. The average user still only has < 3 mbps internet in their home, so either technology is fast enough. And the 4G label, I don't care, and neither do most users, as has been said by other users, in 2 years our contracts expire and we can go wherever we want, so it doesn't matter what technology we buy now. I agree with the writer, it's all fair competition, part of a market economy. I don't care if it's true 4G or not, it's fast.

  16. Avatar CHris B 19/09/2011 @ 9:41 pm

    LIke others save, said, who cores about speeds? If i can steam a 1080p video from my cell phone without issues, then it is good. HSPA/+ is pretty much the fastest any cell phone will need to be, and in reality it is just about as fast as most people’s home cable internet speed.

    the LTE and wimax speeds are faster, but does the .05sec difference matter when you download a 200k app? or a 5sec diff matter when you download a 100mb app? No…

    To me HSPA is better due to its larger tower range, less towers means cheaper, also the hardware is in place for tmobile already, notice you don’t get “3g” on tmobiles “4g” phones, cause almost every 3g tower sends out 4g as well.

    Hence why tmobile is so freakn cheap compared to the others.

    Also don’t say LTE or wimax phones will replace your home internet connections, cause a 100ms ping to your DNS server means you CANT do ANY type of online gaming with a 100ms+ delay. Have to stick to a hardwire connection for that.

    • Avatar James 02/10/2011 @ 5:19 am

      Okay dude, this could replace your internet connection because 100ms is ok for online gaming. It is better than 3g which has 150ms ping and that is kind of noticeable. 100ms is hard to notice. 50ms is not noticeable. Also jitter is very low, I’ve seen lower than 7 percent which is better than time warner road runner. And jitter affects shots fired-it determines whether they register or not.

    • Avatar Brant Wedel 10/10/2011 @ 6:28 am

      I have played WoW on 300ms 3G before, now I use unlimited Hotspot as my internet and watch netflix / youtube without buffering, who needs a hard line with 4G LTE =P

  17. Avatar Nikolaj 27/10/2011 @ 12:00 am

    well lets just get one thing clear LTE is NOT 4G…

  18. Avatar Gatsby 28/11/2011 @ 8:19 pm

    Well-grounded and insightful article. Not a definitive closer on the issue of network differences, though.

    A very crucial industry standards consideration here:

    “4G Americas cites forecasts that put HSPA at more than 3.5 billion subscribers worldwide by the end of 2016. There are 412 commercial deployments of HSPA in 157 countries, including 165 HSPA+ networks. With the continued deployment of LTE throughout the world, and the existing ubiquitous coverage of HSPA in the world, HSPA+ will continue to be enhanced through the 3GPP standards process to provide a seamless solution for operators as they upgrade their networks.

    “If operators are able to gain new additional harmonized spectrum from governments, they will no doubt deploy LTE, However, it is clear that HSPA+ technology is still exceptionally strong and will continue to provide operators with the capability to meet the exploding data usage demands of their customers in existing spectrum holdings.”


    The White Paper:

  19. Avatar samuel ayres 16/03/2012 @ 2:26 pm

    Very very good!! you capture our feeling as consumer, congratulation!
    Samuel, from Brazil!

  20. Avatar STOKANATOR 07/09/2012 @ 5:51 am

    I love the people who talk as if what there saying is fact when they actually have no idea what there talking about! I know most you think LTE is the God for mobile data but here is a little something for you to chew on. Most people don’t even know what LTE is! Why do you think Verizon brags about having LTE’s largest network instead of breaking it down in the easy terms and compare raw speed so everyone could understand and know the difference? BECAUSE THE DIFFERENCE IS SO MINIMAL ITS REDICULOUS!! T-Mobiles HSPA+ 4G network is plenty fast and in AZ where I live my TM phone gets faster downloading speeds then ATT (I haven’t personally tested Verizon) by 2-3 mbps! ATT is a little faster on the upload side but most of you internet activity is downloading. LTE also causes an extereme amount of battery drain vs HSPA+. LTE does have a SLIGHTLY higher possible download speed that can not be contested however neither HSPA or LTE have maximized there current system. When HSPA reaches there max speed of 42mbps which is faster then any normal residential cable internet service, I can’t see anyone complaining and running to Verizon to pay $35 more for slightly faster upload speeds. With the better battery life, great coverage, and cheaper price its a no brianer!! Ill stick with HSPA

  21. Avatar Chorwin 15/10/2013 @ 6:29 am

    A good article, but found there is no date or time of publish. Look like the site owner try to hide the date for SEO purpose. At least put the date to let us know, when the first publish of the article.

    Which technology will win? The spec that able to persuade government to free up 700MHz spectrum and use by it, most probably LTE is the one.

  22. Avatar Sam DiFrancis 31/12/2013 @ 6:29 pm

    I would like to agree with the authors conclusion. However, customers will be dissallusioned and disappointed again and again in all these bands by a hardware industry that fails to deliver products with good fundamental cell tower radio transmission and reception. Hence, continuing to repeat 3G expectation mistakes.

    I would like to see the concept whereby a homes network needs met by any of these bands, however, very few if any products are available with the beamforming features of MIMO to capture the best signal from the cell tower. Thus, until this situation improves, I see a great opportunity for a real hardware manufacturer to deliver what the customer wants. So… wake up manufacturing moron engineers… you make it hard to sell any of these fancy data plans to a wise consumer who is concerned the cost benefit analysis clearly shows we are not getting anywhere near theoretical data rates advertised vaguely by the carriers.

  23. Avatar Sam DiFrancis 02/01/2014 @ 7:05 pm

    LTE IS STILL IMMATURE AND FULL OF QUALITY ISSUES. Documentation fails miserably. I cannot find any LTE manufacturers website offering test reports of actually hitting anywhere near a ‘theoretical’ 100Mbs of downlink. Sierra Wireless? Their very amusing website hides specifications, and misleads us with a M2M product that is ruggedized to MILSTD specs. But then it puts flimsy SMA antenna connectors? Huawei is worse with their TS-9 connector.

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