Clash of the Titans: Harmonization of WiMAX and LTE

By Robert Syputa

First, let's make our opinion clear: harmonization of WiMAX and LTE makes good sense for the development of the industry. Participants from both the WiMAX and LTE camp and IEEE and ETSI 3GPP standards organizations have recognized the need to collaborate on development of communications. Vodafone is among operators that have called for the merging of WiMAX and LTE because this will reduce conflicts and costs for the industry. The long-term trends in technology, regulation, ecosystem consolidation and globalization contribute to the rationale that wireless systems should strive to achieve common air interfaces where feasible. The primary obstacle to achieving harmonization of WiMAX and LTE is simply the commercial self-interests that prevent a common push forward.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini and Sean Maloney, head of Intel's sales and marketing, have called for harmonization between WiMAX and LTE, pointing out the goals of unified broadband communications and common use of technologies.  Maloney came close to substantiating our forecast that Intel will eventually provide combined support regardless of whether the standards groups achieve official harmonization in remarks about providing a multi-mode WiMAX plus LTE chipset. "We don't have any plans to do that yet," Maloney said. "It would certainly be a nice long term goal."

Harmonization has become a hot topic because of heightened competition between WiMAX and LTE for a role in molding development of the next generation of wireless, 4G. While we do not think the current stage of development of WiMAX or LTE qualifies as 4G, both systems are frameworks for evolution to 4G.

Several factors within wireless developments compel harmonization:

  • Pursuit of IMT-Advanced as the path to 4G
  • Both existing 3G, ‘fixed' and new spectrum will be consolidated
  • Multiple scale and application support
  • Common SDR (Software Defined Radio) base stations
  • Common Integrated Circuits
  • Use of 80 percent to 90 percent common technologies
  • Globalization of R&D
  • Need for reduced cost for embedded applications & digital divide
  • Harmonization of wireless standards is a stated goal of 3GPP
  • Common ‘modular concept' for harmonization across systems

If we take a ‘30,000 foot perspective' at the evolution of communications, it becomes clear that arriving at common air interfaces is now not only feasible but also a desirable result. Leading wireless suppliers have consolidated in order to leverage content, services and applications across networks. Technology used in WiMAX and LTE are converging because both camps have come to similar conclusions on the technologies needed to form the next-generation evolutionary framework.  In brief, the framework includes OFDMA, MIMO and Adaptive Antenna Systems (AAS) smart antenna technologies, and IP-based adaptive network architecture. The few significant differences between WiMAX and LTE are surmountable and can fit within the capabilities of increasingly adaptive radio techniques and smart IP-based network developments.   

Further, societal demands for digital inclusion, a growing need for education, enterprise and government communications, harnessing of communications as an alternative to travel, and better use of spectrum resources compels a unified approach to wireless. 

The evolution to 4G involves the interests and interdependencies of multiple IPR stakeholders.  As demonstrated in recent court cases, IPR disputes outside of wireless can result in trade sanctions and imposition of royalty settlements. The convergence of segments of technology further compels standards groups and individual companies to reach mutual accommodation of interests.

The International Telecommunication Union has recognized these trends in development of IMT-Advanced, the next generation communications system beyond IMT-2000.  IMT-Advanced calls for transformation of the mobile wireless industry that will see integration of wired and wireless network communications and consolidation of wireless spectrum access.  Mobile WiMAX (based on 802.16e and first-up version of 3G-LTE) is the debarkation point to 4G: the common vision of 4G will be more fully realized as these platforms progress to the common goal of IMT-Advanced.

The details of how technologies are developed, IPR licensing is structured and negotiated, and commerce develops is intricate and rapidly changing.  Individual companies must ultimately compete based on market acceptance of their products and services. However, the overriding interests of all participants to seek greater fulfillment of the use of technology should compel companies, organizations, and governments to cooperate across barriers that otherwise stall progress.

Ron Resnick, president of the WiMAX Forum, has said that the harmonization between WiMAX and LTE is "really up to the operators if that's what they want to do." That is the deciding factor that will determine to what extent WiMAX and LTE harmonize within the standards groups.  Make no mistake, the technologies, ICs, devices, and systems are in the process of converging.  Whether this occurs harmoniously or with excess rancor is up to the industry.

Robert Syputa is a senior analyst with Maravedis Inc., a research and analysis firm focusing on broadband wireless technologies including WiMAX, 802.20, TD-CDMA and Wireless Local Loop Systems.