Mallinson: LTE overruns world of WiMAX in 4G land grab

Keith Mallinson Wiseharbor researchThere's little point in being conservative about which generation of technology one's using when significant tactical advantages can be obtained by positioning ahead. Being correct about exactly which technology to employ is rather more strategic.

Trade show monikers, the number of press releases and mentions are dubious indicators for which technologies will ultimately succeed.  According to WiMAX Forum's Director of marketing Declan Byrne, speaking at 4G World in Chicago last week "in terms of technology hype, LTE today is probably where WiMAX was around the 2006-2007 timeframe." In my attempt to measure "hype" somehow, I compared the number of news articles referring to mobile broadband technologies WiMAX, LTE, HSDPA, HSPA and HSPA+.  On the basis of Graph 1, he seems approximately right if hype can be equated with press references.  Furthermore, there were 80 percent more mentions for LTE than WiMAX in the news articles covering 4G World this year following the show's renaming and conversion to embrace LTE in 2009.

Graph 1: Hype chases reality

Source: WiseHarbor Research Tracking Mentions in Google News

Meanwhile, with only double the chatter of WiMAX or LTE, subscriber adoption for HSDPA, HSPA and HSPA+ combined has exceeded WiMAX by a factor of ten and LTE is still embryonic commercially. Whereas worldwide subscribers for HSDPA, HSPA and HSPA+ were around 390 million by June 2010, according to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association, the WiMAX Forum forecasts only around 40 million WiMAX "users" in 2010.  Furthermore, it seems that the latter figure overstates the number of SIMs or subscribers by counting multiple users per shared connection, in fixed implementations with more than one computer, that are uncommon with the other technologies.

Changing the name of WiMAX World to 4G World last year prolonged the show's life and provided a platform for the organisers together with WiMAX technology suppliers and operators also to hedge their bets or migrate to LTE. In public during last week's show, Clearwire boasted the successful results of its LTE network trials, Motorola showcased both an LTE dongle as well as a WiMAX home networking device, U.S.-based ChinaTel expressed its indifference to demand for LTE versus WiMAX 802.16m with its gear able to migrate to either standard and WiMAX's Open Patent Alliance presented itself as a role model for LTE patent pooling.  This is a one-way street.  For example, I see very little about WiMAX at the GSMA's shows or in Informa's global series of LTE events.

Clear and simple value proposition

There's no industry consensus on what is and what's not 4G.  The term is used by marketers to describe higher-speed, next-generation networks and lenient interpretations provide tactical advantages.  So far, the ITU, which is the international standards agency within the United Nations that officially designates wireless technologies as 2G, 3G and 4G has not yet officially designated any technology as 4G.

America is ahead of Europe in use of the 4G moniker.  There was no hesitation on the part of the salesman I encountered at the Clear store downtown Chicago this month. He informed me Clear is already offering 4G and insisted that this is a whole lot better than preceding 3G technologies.  He did a good job of making it seem foolish to go for an older, last-generation technology and assured me that coverage right out to the City's north western suburbs was not a problem.  I examined some of these brand new Clearwire RAN and associated microwave backhaul installations for myself. Even trade group 3G Americas has advanced. It announced the organisation's renaming to 4G Amercas while I was attending its annual analyst even in Dallas last month.

My recommendation to operators worldwide is capitalise on 4G terminology as soon as possible with WiMAX and LTE services. Graph 2 shows the rising popularity of 4G in the press. I wonder if, and when, 3GPP will ever rebrand itself accordingly?

Graph 2: The generation game in mobile broadband

Source: WiseHarbor Research Tracking Mentions in Google News

4G is the future

However, currently commercialized technologies do not meet ITU's 4G criteria including 100 Mbps downlinks, 20 Mbps uplinks and at least five-fold expanded system capacity. Current and soon upcoming commercial implementations for WiMAX and LTE are claimed to achieve no more than around 10 Mbps. Meeting in China last week, ITU members voted that LTE-Advanced technology and the WirelessMAN-Advanced portion of WiMAX 802.16m meet its 4G performance criteria. The ITU will likely confirm these technologies as 4G standards in November 2010 and sometime in 2011 respectively. Commercial deployments for these will probably commence within a couple of years.

And just in case it is not clear from the above where I stand on WiMAX versus LTE, I was first to forecast and I maintain my May 2010 prediction that LTE will outpace WiMAX and force it into decline from 2015. If anything, developments since then, including results of the Indian broadband wireless auctions with some license winners preferring to deploy LTE over WiMAX in unpaired spectrum, reinforces my prediction. In fact, the downward turning point for WiMAX might come even sooner than I expected. That wouldn't make my prediction wrong: on the contrary. Industry analysts such as I are typically described as trend forecasters. Trends are relatively easy: it's turning points that are particularly hard to predict at all, let alone their timing.

Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007. WiseHarbor has recently published its Extended Mobile Broadband Device Forecast to 2020. Further details are available at: http://www.wiseharbor.com/forecast.html

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