WiMax and LTE: Sometimes complementary, not competitive

Unlike Asia-Pac operators who view WiMax and LTE as complementary, WiMax may only play a supporting role for smaller U.S. operators.

The 4G wireless marketing wars waged by U.S. wireless carriers paint WiMax and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) as competing technologies. But in other regions of the globe, mobile operators are deploying WiMax and LTE as complementary technologies for specific applications and markets. Although that peaceful coexistence is unlikely to play out stateside, WiMax may come to play a supporting role for operators whose choice of technology doesn't...

wholly define their market identity.

Verizon lit up its LTE network in 38 major metropolitan areas on Dec. 5, and made its choice of LTE a major part of its branding and marketing message. In the Asia-Pacific region (APAC), mobile operators are planning to deploy WiMax and LTE side-by-side as part of a broader 4G strategy that emphasizes coverage and service than specific technologies.

In the rest of the world, WiMax is much more of a niche technology … and therefore much less of a threat.

Richard Webb
Directing Analyst, Infonetics Research

WiMax and LTE instead of WiMax vs. LTE

"In the rest of the world, WiMax is much more of a niche technology … and therefore much less of a threat," said Richard Webb, directing analyst at Infonetics Research. "Mobile operators are much more open to looking at ways they can [deploy] WiMax [rather than hold] back the threat of it, which is the attitude of Verizon Wireless and AT&T."

WiMax and LTE's divergent heritages and signaling technologies -- WiMax coming from the IEEE and LTE coming from 3GPP -- suits them for different uses, according to Mike Jude, program manager at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan.

LTE handles data and roaming more efficiently and intricately because it was "designed from the start for very mobile technologies," Jude said. "It was essentially aimed at mobility. WiMax was essentially aimed at fixed communication and then it was modified to support mobile communications."

"WiMax evolved from the same people who brought you Wi-Fi," Jude said. "[It is] essentially a … single channel, time-multiplexed signal going back and forth, which makes it really great if what you're trying to do is achieve a fairly wide coverage in a fairly rural area because a signal like that tends to bounce around corners. You can establish maybe not the most capable connection, but the connection most suitable for that dynamic."  

Major U.S. carriers likely to continue WiMax vs LTE strategy

Although there are some hints that smaller U.S. operators will treat LTE and WiMax as complementary technologies, various analysts said they did not expect AT&T and Verizon to suddenly offer WiMax service.

"I don't see that because the focus for those two carriers has always been supporting mobility … and a dongle starts looking more like fixed wireless because it doesn't have to do the handoffs," Jude said.

Smaller operators in the States may use WiMax to support specific wireless applications, such as smart grid or machine-to-machine (M2M), but "it's not necessarily a role the mobile operators [will be] talking about front and center," Webb said. Others will continue to use it for fixed mobile broadband to deliver residential Internet access, he said.

Sprint Nextel Corp., which recently announced its "Network Vision" plan, a major overhaul that would decommission its legacy iDEN infrastructure and make its base stations multimodal, may be the only major U.S. operator to support LTE and WiMax as complementary technologies.  

"That was by design in the program -- to leave those options open to us," said Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks at Sprint. "We are looking at what they're doing -- KDDI and UQ in Japan -- and I think it's very interesting to see … and we're probably the only ones [in the United States] who could viably consider that type of strategy." 

WiMax and LTE: Complementary or competitive?

Although LTE hype appears to have rung the death knell for WiMax, the market has continued to grow for three consecutive quarters, Webb said. Global WiMax device and equipment sales rose 8% from the second quarter of this year to $355 million in the third quarter this year.  Year over year revenue rose 9%.  Most activity has come from APAC, but Webb expects operators in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America to continue to fuel growth.

KT Corp., a South Korean telecom operator, expects regulatory bodies to release the 900 Mhz band of spectrum it has acquired for LTE next year, according to Hyun-Pyo Kim, director of mobile research and development at KT, speaking recently on an operator roundtable at 4G World in Chicago. KT plans to deploy LTE a year later.

But LTE won't be the only 4G technology KT markets. In 2006, it launched WiBro -- a version of WiMax developed by South Korean operators. The service was initially launched in Seoul for mobile broadband customers using USB dongles. KT intends to service smartphones with an LTE network, Kim said.

"People don't care about what the technology is, but they care about price, performance and coverage," Kim said at 4G World. "[We will deploy both 4G technologies] to provide good quality of service at the right time that our market demands and expects."

Japanese wireless operator KDDI Corp. launched WiMax last year and operates 11,000 WiMax base stations nationwide. It will add LTE services at the end of 2012 with a similar market strategy to KT, reserving it for mobile broadband, said Hideo Okinaka, vice president and general manager of the operator's emerging technologies and spectrum division, speaking on the same 4G World roundtable.

About 20% of customers access KDDI's WiMax network using MiFi, 70% with a USB dongle and 10% use embedded devices, Okinaka said, noting that he expected the proportion of MiFi access to grow.

"We are positioning LTE … to cellular customers. We are not targeting dongle[s] or the modem. We are targeting smartphones and feature phones," Okinaka said. "We position WiMax as a means to give customers superior Internet access in the mobile environment."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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