Who’s Ahead in the 4G Race?

The allure of betting on a longshot in a tight race — and seeing it play out — never wanes for sports fans.

In the race to 4G that’s heating up between two competing wireless networking standards, it would be foolish to dismiss the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard as the longshot against its better-known rival, WiMAX.

While WiMAX , or Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is seen by industry experts as a few strides ahead of LTE, the LTE standard could cross the finish line as the end-all mobile network that users are eagerly awaiting.

WiMAX and LTE are, in simple terms, Wi-Fi and GSM connectivity on steroids. What’s at stake with their burgeoning growth? Mobility nirvana tied to what pundits call 4G technology — always-on connectivity, real-time multimedia experiences and robust applications without the dropped calls, lost data packets and the all-too-common dead zone scenario users have today.

One reason LTE may win the race is that it continues to gain supporters. The latest Nortel Networks (NYSE:NT), a longtime WiMAX advocate that just switched loyalties this month. Although it is not deserting its WiMAX investments, the voice and data network equipment provider is placing a bigger bet on LTE. It claims that WiMAX progress has slowed.

LTE, the natural progression of Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), promises to make everything from mobile-video sharing to music downloads faster.

WiMAX, based on the 802.16e standard, features a transmission speed more than five times faster than current wireless networks. It lets users send huge data files from a smartphone, switch from a mobile phone network to a LAN without redialing, share documents in real-time videoconferences and essentially transport all the benefits of an office’s networked PC to conduct business on the road.

Both networking standards promise big improvements over the often-pokey speeds current users are stuck with.

“It’s like how we went from local calling to cellular calling, or from dial-up to broadband access,” Carmi Levy, senior VP, strategic consulting, AR Communications, told InternetNews.com. With LTE, there’s an ease of building out the network from its GSM base compared to the significant infrastructure buildout that WiMAX has taken thus far.

However, WiMAX deployments are already up and running while LTE’s formal debut is still two to three years out.

For Nortel, the change of heart on WiMAX could be that WiMAX adoption expectations are a bit bleak at the moment, despite momentum by leading carriers.

A recent Chadwick Martin Bailey survey reported that while 69 percent of enterprises use Wi-Fi for data access and 48.2 percent use 3G cellular service, a whopping 53.5 percent have no plans to move to WiMAX.

Analysts say the 4G evolution is a race, but wide open beyond the LTE and WiMAX camps. Plus, consider the simple fact that there is no official standard 4G definition as yet.

“We don’t really know what 4G technology will arrive because it’s an evolution at this point,” Jeff Kagan, telecom analyst, told InternetNews.com.

“Right now there are more questions than answers,” Kagan said, adding that “I don’t see a winner or loser. It’ll just be more of what we have now.”

Next Page: Into the LTE and WiMAX Camps

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So who are the main groups behind the two networking approaches?

The LTE Camp

AT&T, the leading carrier, is committed to LTE, as are Verizon Wireless and Nortel.

AT&T believes LTE is “better suited” than WiMAX when it comes to mobility, according to spokesman Warner May. “It provides advancements and a graceful transition from 3G technologies,” he added.

The fact that AT&T relies on precursor GSM networking standards is one reason for the move, though adoption is “tied to a whole bunch of issues,” said May. “LTE will have a healthy system and is the leading technology.”

A carrier’s current technology and future available spectrum are drivers in what route carriers are taking, according to pundits.

“The tilt to LTE or WiMAX is tied to the state of a carrier’s network and what they can leverage,” noted Levy.

Future services, such as speedier broadband connectivity over today’s DSL and cable modem capabilities, are also determining where the carriers place their investment bets.

“For AT&T, voice calls are still a priority, while Verizon is intent on maintaining a strong wireless business so they’re going to stick with what’s funneling the majority of revenue on their installed based,” Jack Gold, principal analyst for research firm J.Gold Associates, told InternetNews.com.

“Nothing is going to go away and true mobile ubiquity isn’t going to arrive until at least 2012,” said Gold.

The WiMAX Camp

One carrier with a big stake in WiMAX is Sprint-Nextel (NYSE: S), the fourth largest telecommunications vendor in terms of subscribers (even though it boasts the largest network).

Sprint points to a growing user base of WiMAX as one of its appealing features right now.

WiMAX subscribers are predicted to increase worldwide from 3.40 million to 27 million by 2011, according to a January 2007, Yankee Group report.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, speaking at this week’s NXTcomm trade show, stated “mobile’s best days may still be ahead with data usage on the rise.” He described WiMAX as “wireless at rocket speed,” noting Sprint has a two-year head start ahead of competitors.

Just last month, Sprint announced it was joining forces again with former partner Clearwire (NASDAQ: CLWR) in a $14.5 billion joint venture to create a national WiMAX carrier. The venture also involves Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

This follows Sprint’s announcement in August 2006 that it would deploy the nation’s first WiMAX network using the company’s 2.5GHz spectrum holdings, which reach an estimated 85 percent of the households in the top 100 U.S. markets.

The carrier has also formed an infrastructure development ecosystem called Xohm (pronounced ‘Zoam’) with charter partners Intel, Samsung, Motorola and Nokia.

“Xohm is the removal of the barriers to the seamless use of the wireless Web, making it fast, easy and affordable for a whole new group of users,” John Polivka, Sprint Nextel, Xohm public relations, told InternetNews.com.

Sprint Nextel selected WiMAX because it was the best fit against the company’s four critical metrics: time to market, performance, business model support and ecosystem, said Polivka.

“Wireless data is the sweet spot. This is a new era of social networking and user-generated content,” said Polivka.

It’s All About The 4G Destination

The fact that Motorola (NYSE: MOT) is a member of Xohm, however, doesn’t mean it’s not an LTE fan as well.

The beleaguered handset maker has decided to hedge its bets and throw some support at both technologies, even though it clearly favors WiMAX at this point.

Motorola has spent about half a billion dollars on WiMAX chips and devices, making it a leading global WiMAX technology player, according to Fred Wright, Motorola senior VP, cellular networks and WiMAX.

It currently has 19 contracts for commercial WiMAX systems in 16 countries, and has already shipped more than 3,600 access points and 120,000 CPEs and PC cards.

“WiMAX devices are the last piece to happen,” Wright told InternetNews.com.

In this week alone, Motorola issued three WiMAX-related press releases. One touted
that its WiMAX WAP 25400 base station achieved the WiMAX Forum Certified seal of approval, which puts Motorola among the first to have products earn certification.

The WiMAX Forum plans to certify more than 100 mobile WiMAX products this year.

Wright said both technologies are very good but that “WiMAX is here and now and helping to accelerate the commercial LTE.”

One reason Motorola has gone LTE is that a majority — about 60 to 70 percent of the core technology it has used to develop WiMAX — can be leveraged into LTE devices as well.

“LTE is going to happen and we’ll see LTE commercial evolution much like WiMAX with similar devices,” Wright said.

At the other end of the handset spectrum, some handset makers aren’t doing much of anything, whether WiMAX or LTE.

A Palm spokesperson said the handset manufacturer is “carefully watching the future of the market, and will build products based on the available technology.”

“If WiMAX and or LTE is that next technology, Palm will examine introducing products to the market at that time,” said the spokesperson.

Over at Intel, it’s been 4G all the way since May of 2002 when Intel founded a WiMAX incubator program that soon became a full-fledged business unit, according to Margaret LaBrecque, Intel WiMAX strategist.

“While WiMAX took longer than we thought, as mobility can be very complex, it’s here today,” LeBlanc told InternetNews.com

What It All Means

Any and all 4G investment, whether around WiMAX or LTE, is good news for enterprises hungry for better and faster mobility services, according to experts.

While not a telecom budget factor this year, IT leaders are advised to stay on top of 4G activities, said AR Communications analyst Levy.

“Enterprises need to be watching and be aware of what’s coming though it’s not really in the line of vision at this point,” Levy said, adding that vendors will be focused on providing what’s most important to business — solid voice and data networking performance at lower price points.

“In three to four years we’ll know what will be. At this point it’s about watching the landscape develop and adapting, if necessary, to leverage what’s coming,” Levy said.

“It’s very possible both WiMAX and LTE will grab footings and survive and thrive as there is room for everyone to co exist.”

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