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Who won in the WiMAX vs LTE competition?

WiMAX vs LTE is an old story, but how did this story end? A few years ago, in 2007, WiMAX had a head start and also a couple of strong supporters who were already investing in such networks like Sprint and Clearwire. Many were saying that WiMAX is the future and a lot of small operators around the world were investing in WiMAX networks hoping this will allow them a place at the table of big players.

Both wireless technologies are intended to offer ubiquitous broadband at multiple megabits per second. Mobile WiMAX is an IEEE specification also known as 802.16e and designed to support as high as 12Mbps data-transmission speeds, but it also holds the promise that it can reach speeds of up to 1Gbps in the future. It uses Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, which transmits data by splitting radio signals that are broadcast simultaneously over different frequencies. These signals are immune to interference and can support high data rates. LTE was developed in the Third-Generation Partnership Project as the natural progression of high-speed packet access (HSPA), the GSM technology that is currently used by carriers such as AT&T to deliver 3G mobile broadband. LTE is a modulation technique that is designed to deliver 100Mbps per channel and give individual users performance comparable to today’s wired broadband.

Even though WiMAX was ahead of the race, in 2007, the large players in US market, AT&T and Verizon announced they will be offering their future 4G services on LTE networks, because LTE provides a more natural upgrade for their GSM/UMTS/HSPA/CDMA-based networks and subscribers – and GSM is the dominant mobile standard worldwide, with more than 3 billion global customers as of February 2010. Many were still not convinced, because the LTE networks were going to be available only close to end of 2011 or early 2012, while WiMAX was already here.

However something happened and WiMAX lost the momentum. Maybe it was the fact that they came so quickly on the market and the WiMAX networks deployed or in deployment were not offering the 4G speeds everyone was expecting, I mean the deployments up until 2010 did not reach the 100Mbps threshold. Maybe it was also the fact that WiMAX capable devices were scarce and coming slow to the market and maybe the commercial success of iPhones which represent a significant share of the market drove customers to operators that sold these devices on their 3G networks and diverted the public’s interest from the new emerging 4G WiMAX based networks.

In any case LTE seems to be the turtle that beat the rabbit in this technology competition. More than 7 years passed since this race started and with over 36 commercially launched networks by December 2011 and about 185 commitments ongoing in more than 80 countries LTE seems to be moving fast ahead of WiMAX. Of course, LTE comes with its own problems, because it’s not all just about data traffic. Data may dominate mobile traffic, but voice and SMS still represent more than 70% of operator revenue and are the most used mobile services.

Bogdan Tudan // Business Unit Director