As WiMAX and LTE face off, the current state of play is that both technologies have valid applications. In spite of the hype surrounding LTE, it should be acknowledged that it is in its very earliest stages of deployment and, for several years at least, WiMAX will have a far larger global footprint and a greater range of dongles and enabled devices.
However, some WiMAX telecoms operators have already announced they are to migrate to LTE because of LTE’s better device ecosystem.
Since some WiMAX infrastructure can be upgraded to LTE via a relatively simple software upgrade, the move makes sense for those companies. Equally, recent 3G wireless equipment can be software upgraded to LTE, although older equipment will require replacement of physical infrastructure.
Lance Uyehara, senior manager, design engineering at Tyco Electronics, points out that an important comparison can be made in the US market, where telecoms operator Verizon Wireless has recently launched LTE in 38 markets with 110 points-of-presence (POPs). That’s a brand new network and one of the largest LTE deployments to date.
However, rival provider Clearwire has deployed WiMAX in 68 markets with a total of 103 POPs. ‘While the POPs are about the same, Clearwire’s networks are primarily in rural and low population density markets, thus Clearwire is in more markets than Verizon Wireless LTE,’ he says. ‘On a global scale, there are many more commercial WiMAX networks as the fixed WiMAX standard, 802.16d, has been around since 2004.’
David Sharpley, senior VP of marketing and product management at Bridgewater Systems, agrees: ‘In terms of LTE and WiMAX deployments, the statistics speak for themselves,’ he says. ‘Worldwide, WiMAX had more than 13 million subscribers as of the end of 2010, with 18.5 million predicted by the end of 2011. Meanwhile, LTE subscriber numbers will reach 6.5 million by the end of 2011. So, numerically at least, WiMAX may have almost three times as many subscribers in the short-term.’
‘But that is only part of the story,’ adds Sharpley. ‘If you consider actual and planned 4G deployments, WiMAX has more than 600 deployments with 213 devices and 61 base stations certified, according to Maravedis Research. While as of November 2010 only seven LTE networks had commercially launched, 156 operators in 64 countries have committed to investing in LTE according to the GSA.’
That larger current installed base could turn out to be a key point in WiMAX’s favour. That ability to address rural areas with low population density in a cost-effective manner gives it an advantage over LTE, which operators will deploy in densely populated areas first to make sense of the investment required.
Harry Aldridge, a director of Bluenowhere, a provider that plans to begin deployment of rural WiMAX networks in early 2011 in the UK, points out that WiMAX is being commercially deployed in many markets around the world including Italy, the US, Russia, Canada, India, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Mexico, France and Ireland, as well as multiple countries on the African continent.
‘Almost all of these are mobile WiMAX deployments, especially in developed markets, although India and Africa are seeing fixed WiMAX deployments as DSL is not available,’ he says.
However, WiMAX is not only applicable to rural, underdeveloped areas with geographically dispersed populations. For urban users, the technology has many attractive applications, although much of that usage will be via laptops and tablet devices meaning that users, rather than being truly mobile, are nomadic.
Richard Brandon, head of strategy at MLL Telecom, points out that in the UK both technologies are barely being used, partially due to licensing constraints within the country.
‘WiMAX is being used now in certain, mainly urban, areas, albeit at modest scale,’ he says. ‘LTE is still in trial phase, so there aren’t yet any widespread commercial deployments in the UK. However, the technology is ready to deploy and the pilot networks that we are supporting are delivering impressive performance.’
Nevertheless, Sharpley sees both technologies continuing to gain ground. ‘I think that WiMAX growth is being fuelled by its ability to evolve into LTE – in that respect it is a future-proof technology – and the ready availability of WiMAX devices and network equipment today,’ he adds.
On the LTE front, Bridgewater’s technology is live in the first commercial production LTE network in the US, operated by Metro PCS. ‘Our LTE solutions have also been chosen by other operators such as Agri-Valley and Cellcom in the US,’ says Sharpley. ‘Deployments don’t seem limited only to large or to small operators – we are seeing demand across the board.’
For Aldridge, spectrum availability has hampered WiMAX deployment and it will delay LTE in the UK. ‘Lack of spectrum in the UK has held up WiMAX deployment,’ he adds. ‘The UK broadband sub-licensing model [introduced] in 2010 has opened the door and WiMAX deployments will take hold in 2011. LTE will not be deployed in currently used spectrum in the near future and will be delayed until new spectrum at 800MHz and 2.6GHz is made available, pushing deployments to 2013 or 2014 at the earliest. Operator rollout of LTE will take a number of years, beginning in highest use urban areas to offload data intensive users.’
Bluenowhere is looking to 802.16e and 16m WiMAX today with a view to migrating to TD-LTE as the technologies converge and LTE becomes market ready with a developed device ecosystem.
‘WiMAX vendors are increasingly making their WiMAX solutions LTE upgradeable,’ adds Aldridge. ‘There is little difference on the radio interface, so choices rest purely on the application or customer requirement and the nature of the users and devices required – and whether LTE is as easily deployable for a greenfield operator.’
The early stage nature of LTE means there have been few commercial deployments, but Brandon says enterprises have engaged with WiMAX. ‘Enterprise WiMAX deployments to date have largely been application-specific, or at least driven by a few applications,’ he adds. ‘For example, in the WiMAX trial in Maidstone, Kent that MLL Telecom operated, the Fire Service used it for sending real-time video from an incident back to the control room.’
Aldridge agrees that those application-driven types of deployment are where WiMAX is strongest. ‘WiMAX will not be deployed by mobile operators and will not form the basis of a national mobile voice network,’ he confirms. ‘Instead, WiMAX networks will serve geographically defined user communities, whether that is to bring fixed broadband to rural areas to meet the Digital Britain 2Mbps USC/NS programme, or in urban environments for specialist organisations in the public sector such as the NHS or local government. WiMAX will predominantly be about data to premises, vehicles and possibly laptops or specialist handheld devices, but not to consumer handheld devices.’
That, for Brandon, limits its long-term appeal. ‘WiMAX will continue to have short-term appeal for niche applications, such as in planning offices in the public sector, allowing them to send out junior staff to photograph buildings and send pictures back to the office for surveyors to examine,’ he says. ‘The challenge for WiMAX as a more generally appealing alternative to LTE will be its limited device support. So while it will co