4G camps put pressure on WiMAX

The post-3G wars are finally ready to kick off. The roadmaps are drawn, commercial launch dates have been narrowed down to the quarter, and the PowerPoints have been fully loaded and ready to fire.

Which means that the mobile industry can finally stop talking about the things that really matter to end-users (like services they actually want) and start talking about the things that vendors really love - peak data rates, spectral efficiency, economies of scale and patent royalties.
Joy! I so miss the late '90s. It's good to have them back.

I'm exaggerating, of course. All of the post-3G technology camps (which we shall not refer to as 4G because it only encourages them) assure me that they have their eye firmly on customer demand, and are fully aware that mobile users want simple, seamless services that let them do whatever they want to do at any given time.

And while it may sound old-school to address those demands by throwing a bunch of peak date rates and acronyms at them, it's also a fact that, at least when you're talking to operators, speed and simplified architectures do matter.

Still, those of us who witnessed the original battle for 3G supremacy could be forgiven for seeing the current post-3G showdown between GSM's LTE (Long Term Evolution) and CDMA's UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband) as 3G Standard Wars 2.0.

For one thing, both sides claim superiority over the other as if it's going to make a difference in terms of which cellcos actually adopt it. In reality, for the most part, everyone knows who is going to deploy what where.

The fact that UMB will go commercial in 2009 (one year before LTE) and can be reportedly overlaid over UMTS networks isn't likely to tip the scales in its favor for existing cellcos - not in meaningful numbers, anyway - even in markets where regulators let them decide what technology they want to use with their spectrum.

Kill your fixed line

What's potentially more interesting is what the post-3G wars will mean for everyone else caught in the cross-fire - namely, WiMAX and fixed-line broadband services.

UMB, for example, is being pitched by CDMA vendors like Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, ZTE, Nortel, Motorola and Qualcomm as being so incredibly mighty (with data speeds topping 290 Mbps if you can get hold of 20-MHz wide spectrum channels) that it could conceivably replace all forms of DSL completely.

Of course, broadband operators offering FTTH services (like, say, CTI's Hong Kong Broadband Network with its 1-Gbps connections) aren't likely to be impressed with a mere 290 Megs. And I seriously doubt that anyone's going to drop even their existing FTTH loops (let alone xDSL) just to roll out UMB as a substitute.

Greenfield operators could be a different story. The same goes for telcos in emerging markets that have been looking for credible, cheap wireless solutions. Many have already gone with WiMAX, but a larger number have already gone with CDMA 1x networks that are upgradeable to EV-DO and, with some extra effort, UMB.

The million-dollar question is: what does all this mean for WiMAX‾

 

My $1.99 answer: probably not too much in the short term. As a fixed-line alternative, WiMAX is live now and could set up a nice niche base for itself between now and UMB's 2009 debut. And despite all the glowing hype about end-users swooning over ubiquitous Web 2.0 multimedia techno-utopias, not everyone needs the ability to watch HD video on a palmtop or upload mobile videos onto YouTube 24 hours a day. Hong Kong has a mobile penetration rate of 130%, and despite having at least four operators to choose from over the past four or five years, only 22% of its mobile base subscribes to 3G, according to OFTA.

That said, Ovum predicts that with LTE and UMB looming, by 2011 WiMAX will comprise 2% of the entire worldwide mobile broadband market. Post-3G technology may not kill WiMAX off completely, but it may well force WiMAX to up its game. 

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