Infrastructure Riding the Next Wave -- WiMAX versus LTE // by Peter Howard

Published 3 April 2008

By 2011, it is estimated that 1.5 billion people will have broadband; which technology will better serve their needs — WiMAX or LTE? WiMAX is already here, and LTE will take time to roll out — but when it does, it will give WiMAX a run for its money; LTE offers spectrum flexibility, significant added capacity, and a platform for delivering premium applications cost effectively

For cellular providers looking beyond the 3G standard to next generation

4G technology, there has been much debate and comparison between WiMAX and Long Term Evolution (LTE) throughout the industry. Today’s mobile industry is hindered with old technology that cannot stand up to the current demands of consumers’ ever-increasing data requirements. By 2011, it is estimated that 1.5 billion people will have broadband; in addition, more than half of these will have mobile broadband.

LTE will deliver a highly compelling user experience with ultra-broadband speeds and almost instantaneous responsiveness for mega multimedia applications. This means that LTE will potentially compete with wired broadband connections and enable services such as mobile TV for operators. LTE will also provide incredible spectrum flexibility, significant added capacity, and a platform for delivering premium applications — cost effectively — in both developed and emerging markets. With WiMAX long being held as the serious contender for mobile broadband and LTE waiting in the wings, commercial success will be determined by a multitude of factors.

Speed of implementation is one. According to Steve Mailey, director, Commercial Wireless Business Development for General Dynamics Wireless Services, “In considering WiMAX versus LTE we recognize that these two technologies are in different stages of development. WiMAX has one unchallenged advantage: time. It is out now and more networks should be available later this year. Currently the Sprint Nextel deployment of WiMAX is underway and the biggest in the world. LTE will take time to roll out as it is still in test mode with deployments reaching mass adoption by 2012.”

In terms of strengths, both have distinct advantages. LTE is the most commercially reliable in terms of mobility and coverage since it is overlayed on existing mobile networks. One of its biggest cost advantages for GSM operators is they can evolve their existing infrastructure and base station real estate to deliver it. In addition, LTE will run on an evolution of the existing UMTS infrastructure already used by over 80 percent of mobile subscribers globally. For carriers, however, LTE deployment will require major capital expenditures including replacement of circuit switches with packet switch technology and need to upgrade their backhaul to support the additional bandwidth demands. As a result, only the largest carriers will be able to afford to deploy LTE.

From a cost savings standpoint, WiMAX is based on an IEEE standard, an open standard. This level of openness means WiMAX equipment is standard and therefore cheaper to buy — sometimes half the cost. Depending on the spectrum allotted for WiMAX deployments and how the network is configured, this can mean a WiMAX network is also highly cost effective to build.

Spectrum will be another key factor in determining success. For WiMAX, the lack of high quality spectrum is an obstacle that could potentially delay implementation. In contrast, LTE does not require building a brand new network and runs on the evolution of existing UMTS infrastructure. As for speed, it is believed LTE will be faster than the current generation of WiMAX, but the 802.16m standard that should be ratified in 2009 is fairly similar in speed to LTE.

Ultimately, the decision for many carriers may be to use both technologies. Since LTE is based on TCP/IP and provides essentially a wireless internet, there will be a great deal more choices in terms of applications and devices, and development of future applications is virtually unlimited. According to Steve Mailey, “One strategy might be to use LTE to support mobile broadband users and use WiMAX to support fixed or lower mobility users. Another might be use of LTE for macro cellular coverage and WiMAX for micro cell coverage. This peaceful co-existence scenario would require development of a multitude of devices in support of both technologies and allow for full compatibility across both technologies.”

Peter Howard is Senior Director, Engineering & Technical Services, General Dynamics Information Technology