WiMAX has lost the battle, but LTE hasn't won the war

Despite announcements from Samsung that it continues to win orders for WiMAX equipment, there is a growing consensus within the mobile industry that LTE has won the battle to become the next global standard for cellular communications.

The head of ecosystems and research at ST-Ericsson, Björn Ekelund, recently gave a blunt condemnation of WiMAX claiming that the technology had never been able to show the complete solution. "This should have included all the infrastructure that you need for the modern network--mobility, and billing, and content, services and so on."

WiMAX fortunes have received a further blow with ABI Research claiming that base station growth was below expectations, with part of the blame being due to delays by US-based Clearwire that have constrained the ecosystem--from subscribers to devices and chipsets.

The market research firm said some operators that were adopting WiMAX today have been choosing base station vendors that can offer the options of staying with WiMAX (migrating towards 802.16m) or moving towards TD-LTE.

The bastion of everything WiMAX, Taiwan, has also indicated that it might now hedge its position and consider backing LTE. Having seen its partner Intel complete an abrupt withdrawal from its 100 per cent commitment to WiMAX, the country's Economic Affairs minister said that Taiwan's investment in WiMAX R&D wouldn't be wasted given the technology's similarities to LTE.

But this rush to become involved with LTE does not come without problems.

ST-Ericsson's Ekelund accepts that implementing LTE around the world presents formidable problems that need a combined approach from the industry.

The most significant hurdle is the growing number of frequency bands being approved by different countries for LTE use, making it increasingly difficult to manufacture a single LTE handset that would sell across the world and gain the economies of scale--a key attribute behind the global success of GSM.

"A 3G phone may have to support four bands. An LTE phone has to be able to support around 11," Ekelund said. And this is without the formidable challenge of supporting an enormous range of legacy cellular standards.

Given these engineering difficulties, becoming a large player in the smaller, but simpler, WiMAX industry might be a better and more profitable option for some vendors attracted by the glitz surrounding LTE. -Paul