When mobile Wimax first arrived on the scene about five years ago, it boasted a first-to-market advantage in providing a technology that would help operators meet the growing demand for wireless broadband far more cost-effectively than existing 3G technologies. And then a curious thing happened. Mobile Wimax proved to be a disruptive force in the telecommunications industry, unwittingly helping to quicken the arrival of LTE.
With both of these next-generation technologies on the horizon, an industry debate over which was the superior technology - and if Wimax would survive - began to ensue. Soon, the various camps had lined up behind each of the nascent technologies.
But as the number of mobile Wimax networks continued to grow and the world's first commercial LTE networks were set to debut in late 2009, it became obvious that there are two correct answers - Wimax and LTE - to the question of which 4G technology is best suited to help operators as they struggle to meet consumers' seemingly insatiable appetite for data on the go.
Both Wimax and LTE will in fact, live in the same "4G House". Wimax and LTE will not only co-exist within markets, but also complement one another and work in tandem for operators to provide the most advantageous mix of technologies and best use of licensed and unlicensed spectrum to meet their particular business needs and provide the bandwidth consumers need. It's a matter of survival.
Mix and match
Both Wimax and LTE are all-IP technologies based on orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM). These technologies shift the fundamental architecture from a circuit to a packet-based world. That's important as they both will deliver the lowest cost per bit for operators.
Today's demands to deliver mobile broadband data - from video to social media, to navigational and location-based services - make it far more complex for operators than in the past. They are challenged by the needs for more speed, spectrum, capacity and coverage - all at a time when the impact of flat-rate data plans and tough economic times are complicating their financial picture.
The only way for today's operators to meet consumer demands for constant connectivity and great personal media experiences is for them to use a variety of solutions - whether a combination of licensed, unlicensed, Wimax, FDD-LTE, TD-LTE and/or Wi-Fi - and plan now for future growth. After all, this demand for mobile data is not slowing anytime soon, and is no longer is confined to the Millennial generation. The need to be constantly connected now spans multiple generations, namely people from ages 16 to 64.
Continuing to deliver and enhance consumer experiences requires operators to get creative in how and which technologies they use to build their networks. In fact, it may not be a homogenous solution at all. Take AT&T, which use, a combination of 3G and Wi-Fi while it bypasses HSPA+ on its migration to a planned LTE deployment in 2011.
And while much attention has been paid to FDD-LTE, some operators are starting to consider TD-LTE because of spectrum availability, lower cost, and flexibility around shifting upstream/downstream capacity. Additional TD-LTE spectrum offers some scope for future network capacity expansion. Still, for today's operators to succeed in providing critically needed bandwidth, they must mix and match all of the 4G technologies to provide cost-effective backhaul.
As more consumers discover what they can do with a 4G network and new broadband devices, there will be more pressure on operators to move to 4G sooner rather than later so they can meet the growing data demand and deliver personalized experiences. Operators have important decisions to make about which 4G technologies will provide the best combination for them to start with given their unique circumstances. There are a number of options in the "4G House" to meet their requirements, and they need to consider all of them.
Bruce Brda is senior VP of Mobile Devices and Home at Motorola