Fourth generation networks are some way off, but in the interim, two technologies are competing for their day in the sun. Which is due to win?
While the argument continues to rage on between fourth generation mobile network pundits favouring long-term evolution (LTE) or WiMAX as the technology that will drive the future of their wireless networks, too few commentators, vendors and market experts consider that there are scenarios in which the two technologies can comfortably coexist. A fourth generation network, according to the International Telecommunication Union is capable of delivering data rates in excess of 100Mbps data rates in mobile contexts and in excess of 1Gbps in static or nomadic (fixed-mobile) contexts. Presently LTE seems to be the technology that’s favoured by the world’s cellular operators, since it provides a good stepping stone between both CDMA and GSM based mobile networks and LTE-advanced – the only standard that currently conform to the ITU’s definition of a fourth generation network. WiMAX on the other hand is receiving encouraging traction with telecoms operators – mobile and fixed – that have very little existing infrastructure, but an overwhelming demand for high-data rate Internet connectivity. While it is still very conceivable that the two technologies will ultimately end up duking it out for dominance, it’s unlikely that one will fall at the hands of another. That’s because the technologies are fundamentally different and have their own benefits and drawbacks that in turn make them suitable to overcoming various challenges or in other cases, non-viable routes to follow. In order to explain this thoroughly however, we’ll need to take a closer look at each technology.
What’s the fuss with WiMAX?
WiMAX is more formerly known as IEEE standard 802.16 and originates from the LAN/MAN subcommittee. That straight from the word ‘go’ should speak volumes about WiMAX’s roots and its intended use. Borne out of the almost ridiculous growth of the 802.11 wireless standard that is today responsible for the amazing number of WiFi hotspots we find in the workplace and public areas, such as parks, coffee shops and university campuses, not to mention modern homes, the basic idea behind WiMAX was to take the same tenets on which WLAN technology was built and extend it into the WAN environment. While more developed parts of the world could rely on fibre-optic backhaul networks, WiMAX was envisaged as a technology that would provide a wireless alternative for telcos that had limited budgets and couldn’t hope to contend with the timeframes associated with installing fibre. The broader WiMAX standard has derivatives that are perfect for fixed last mile connectivity, derivatives that are ideal for providing backhaul for high-speed telco networks and even derivatives for more mobile applications – hence the reason it is touted as a possible competitor for LTE. And as mentioned, previously, WiMAX is currently the top choice for telcos and Internet service providers looking to provide high-speed Internet services where relatively little or no current infrastructure exists. The technology has undoubtedly been more successful than LTE, with numerous successful deployments of WiMAX being undertaken in both the developing and developed world (by contrast to LTE that is only now beginning to gain any traction). But WiMAX adoption hasn’t been without challenges.
What’s in a name?
The largest stumbling block WiMAX faces is not technological. Where the name WiMAX makes the technology easier for the average user to understand – inferring that it’s nothing more than WiFi taken to the max – WiFi’s numerous stability, security and performance related-issues kept it in the consumer market until recently. While WiMAX has good provisions for all of these stumbling blocks, its close name association with WiFi has meant it hasn’t been taken quite as seriously as many of the vendors might have liked. Outside of these concerns, it’s also worthwhile noting that WiMAX makes use of regulated and leased spectrum, as opposed to WiFi, which operates inside open spectrum. Apart from this meaning that the spectrum assigned to WiMAX isn’t likely to interfere with, or be interfered with by other wireless devices, these networks are also professionally installed by experts and as such are more likely to deliver on its performance promises.
Long term evolution
As opposed to the IEEE standards process that was followed with WiMAX, LTE was developed by the 3rd generation partnership project (3GPP) – a body that consists of the numerous contributors and stakeholders responsible for the evolution and maintenance of the GSM standards. As such, LTE is part of the evolution from the circuitswitched GSM networks of old, through the early General Packet Radio Service (GPRS)-based (2.5G) networks and more recently, Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution, 3G, High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) and HSPA+ networks in operation across the world today. While LTE is a much younger technology than WiMAX, what makes LTE so attractive is that it exceeds the performance level of current HSPA+ networks, which have a theoretical down link data rate of 56 MB/s and that it is entirely IP-based, from one end to the other. While WiMAX is a strong offering, LTE is the logical choice for existing mobile telcos because it builds logically on everything they have in place from an infrastructural point of view. In fact, the existing infrastructure vendors being used by the world’s mobile networks all have rollout plans that are able to predictably transition their customers from their current 3G infrastructure, through to HSPA+ and LTE. And quite possibly beyond.
And the winner is?
Looking at where the roots of each technology likes, predicting which technology will win is by no means cut and dried. In fact, even though the market is expecting either LTE or WiMAX to prevail, it’s unlikely one will unseat the other entirely. It’s plausible that the two will continue to coexist – LTE as the natural, higher speed evolution in the GSM realm and WiMAX as the solution to purpose-built networks designed to connect users’ homes and possibly even their notebook computers to the Internet. It’s also worthwhile noting that the two technologies are complementary enough to coexist in the same ecosystem, with WiMAX assisting with ever growing backhaul requirements of mobile network operators and LTE being used at the client end, for providing fast data service to mobile phones and computing devices. Of course, it’s also not outlandish to predict that a combination of LTE and WiMAX will be used on the client end – each playing to its strengths as a data delivery mechanism for mobile phone service and connecting personal computers to the Internet, respectively. It’s interesting to note however that the vendors in this industry have, instead of choosing a middle ground that would see both technologies being supported indefinitely, drawn battle lines and begun pursuing one or another technology. Whether or not this will see an ultimate leader developing in the coming years or not isn’t clear. It will almost certainly mean that things will remain interesting in this space for the foreseeable future.