The need for a migration path to LTE sounds like surrender for WiMAX

A number of high-profile setbacks in recent weeks have further dented the already weakened business case for WiMAX.

In a widely anticipated move, Russian operator Yota revealed plans in May to switch tack and start rolling out LTE. The company, which has always preferred to describe itself as a mobile broadband provider rather than a WiMAX operator, had been rumored for some time to be contemplating the change. It will start to deploy LTE networks in five cities later this year.

India’s 2.3GHz-spectrum auctions dealt WiMAX a second blow when it emerged that the list of successful bidders is dominated by companies pledged to launch services based on the TDD version of LTE. Among the successful bidders was Qualcomm – a longtime critic of WiMAX – which secured prime TDD spectrum covering Delhi and Mumbai, and Reliance-owned Infotel Broadband Services, which secured spectrum in all regions. It now appears that the Indian market, which had looked like the next great hope for WiMAX, might go the LTE route.

The decision by Netherlands-based WorldMax to close down its service in Amsterdam just two years after launch – due to license restrictions imposed on the company by the Department of Defense over interference concerns – removes another torch-bearer for WiMAX from the market.

With the long-term prospects for WiMAX looking increasingly uncertain, it was always going to be challenging for the WiMAX Forum Global Congress – held June 16-17 in Amsterdam, Netherlands – to strike an upbeat note. Forced to acknowledge LTE’s growing dominance, successive speakers emphasized its lack of market-readiness, particularly with regard to TD-LTE technology, which poses the most direct challenge to WiMAX. Banking on a delayed entry of TD-LTE into the market, the speakers urged operators to deploy WiMAX to win market share in countries hungry for increased broadband penetration, such as India.

Stressing the relative maturity of WiMAX, a number of speakers at the conference claimed that the development of TD-LTE is running as much as a year behind that of FDD-LTE. It is a claim that LTE’s supporters would probably contest, given evidence of the effort behind TD-LTE in 3GPP, the technology trials conducted recently by China Mobile and the multivendor TD-LTE technology demonstrations at the recent Shanghai Expo, all of which point to the likelihood that TD-LTE will be commercially ready around the same time as, if not sooner than, the FDD version.

Regardless of TD-LTE’s readiness, however, the WiMAX community has to make some serious concessions before it can secure backing for more network rollouts. It emerged at the Amsterdam event that would-be investors and operators alike are seeking assurances that WiMAX networks are capable of migrating to LTE sometime in the future. WiMAX vendors are therefore eager to point out that the equipment they supply today can, at some future date, be converted to TD-LTE by means of a software upgrade. Meanwhile, efforts continue to enhance the performance of existing WiMAX networks and to develop next-generation 802.16m products. The current 802.16e technology is being given a performance boost by incorporating elements of 802.16m, in a bid to improve capacity and coverage. Among the first to adopt the enhancements is Japan’s UQ Communications, which reports significant gains in throughput in both the uplink and downlink.But with only a small number of vendors backing 802.16m, or Phase 2 WiMAX, there must be some doubt as to whether the technology can be commercialized late in 2011 as hoped.

The risk to 802.16m is that the availability of TD-LTE, also in late 2011, might make that the preferred technology route for WiMAX operators.

The 4G debate

Of more immediate concern for US operator Clearwire, the world’s largest WiMAX provider, is a marketing challenge from T-Mobile USA, which says its recently expanded HSPA+ network is capable of delivering “4G speeds.” T-Mobile says the Clearwire network offers limited coverage and inferior data rates to its own HSPA+ network – a claim supported by various user blogs – though WiMAX providers such as Clearwire can point to their larger allocation of spectrum as being crucial in the delivery of a “4G-like” experience. T-Mobile’s marketing spin does, however, raise the broader question of what WiMAX providers will call 802.16e Enhanced. The unchecked use of the term “4G” for WiMAX and now 3.5G networks – and no doubt a number of the upcoming LTE networks – has already gone a long way toward undermining the ITU’s assertion that the candidate technologies for IMT-Advanced – likely to be LTE-Advanced and potentially WiMAX 802.16m – are correctly termed 4G. These are expected to be capable of delivering 100Mbps and above in a mobile environment and 1Gbps when stationary – well above the capabilities of today’s networks.

A T-Mobile spokesman told Informa Telecoms & Media that the use of 4G with reference to HSPA+ was not technically correct but said that the term was being used on performance grounds, in response to the marketing of WiMAX services. By the time IMT-Advanced becomes a reality, however, the marketers might well have moved beyond “4G” to “4.5G”, or even “5G.”



  1. Avatar paddy O'Martin 25/06/2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Great article. My take is that the real advantage of LTE is still on paper. That advantage by the way is simply that the larger carriers claim they will move that direction. It is not a technology advantage so much as it is “if you want to roam” you will need LTE. But if you want to use high speed data today, your only real choice is WiMax.

  2. Avatar FF 28/06/2010 @ 1:57 pm

    Good one, but operators has no other choice than deploying WiMAX to satisfy the BB demand currently they have. LTE terminal prices are still a concern which might not secure the business model of the LTE…

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