Amid LTE Buzz, WiMax Moves Forward

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-02-19

Amid LTE Buzz, WiMax Moves Forward

While Verizon Wireless is using the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to tout the 2010 rollout of its Long Term Evolution 4G network, WiMax providers and vendors are making every effort possible to remind the wireless industry that WiMax-the other 4G technology-is already up and running.

Prior to the Mobile World Congress, the WiMax Forum issued a pre-emptive statement pointing out there are already almost 460 global WiMax network deployments in more than 135 countries covering 430 million people. "It's real, it's here today with deployment, spectrum and users," said Intel Executive Vice President Sean Maloney. "By the time LTE is deployed, WiMax will have a two- to three-year maturation lead."

For emphasis, Maloney added, "WiMax is the genuine heir to Ethernet and Wi-Fi."

Intel, it should be noted, has a vested interest in WiMax, committing early to the technology, as did Sprint Nextel. More than two years ago, Sprint and Intel declared WiMax to be the 4G technology of the future while Verizon Wireless and AT&T committed to LTE.

Both LTE and WiMax's 4G technology promise much faster download speeds than current cellular networks and have the speed potential to be a replacement for fixed-line broadband such as DSL and cable modems. Like Wi-Fi, WiMax is based on an IEEE standard (802.16) and embraces open standards. LTE is proprietary technology.

But unlike the successful WiMax deployments in other countries, the effort has struggled in the United States. Sprint's attempt to gain 4G momentum over Verizon Wireless and AT&T almost collapsed before it began. Only a $14.5 billion merger between Sprint's WiMax Xohm division and Clearwire kept the flame alive.

To complete the merger, Sprint Nextel turned over its entire 2.5GHz spectrum holdings and its WiMax-related assets, including its Xohm division, to Clearwire. The merger also brought in a combined $3.2 billion investment by Comcast, Intel, Time Warner Cable, Google and Bright House Networks. The end result, so far, has been U.S. WiMax deployments in Baltimore and Portland, Ore, far short of original projections that by the end of 2008 WiMax would have 100 million subscribers.

"WiMax is a global market and 80 percent of that market is overseas, not just the United States," Maloney said, shrugging off the early problems of the U.S. WiMax deployment. "After several years in development, 2008 was the year that WiMax became a global reality. In both emerging markets and mature countries, companies and governments are deploying 4G WiMax networks to help bridge the digital divide and bring affordable, superfast mobile broadband to their citizens."

That may well be true, but neither Verizon Wireless or AT&T are likely to be daunted by Clearwire's two-city edge in the United States, particularly considering Clearwire's vague announcements about future U.S. deployments and Sprint's shaky financial future.

Verizon Wireless said Feb. 18 it will be testing LTE in U.S. cities in 2009, followed by an aggressive rollout in 2010.

Verizon vs. Clearwire

"Verizon Wireless' LTE network deployment will be driven by our vision of providing ubiquitous global wireless broadband connectivity and mobility," Dick Lynch, Verizon executive vice president and CTO, said in a Mobile World Congress keynote address. "LTE enables us to continue to meet business customer demands for a higher-bandwidth, low-latency service that works broadly in the United States and globally, while helping us to meet consumer demand for mobilizing the many applications they frequently use when tethered to high-bandwidth wired networks."

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon and Vodafone, will use the spectrum it obtained for $6.5 billion in the 2008 FCC (Federal Communications Commission) 700MHz auction to run its LTE network. The spectrum is currently held by broadcasters that are scheduled to vacate the spectrum in June.

Clearwire reacted to Verizon Wireless' announcement with bravado.

"Verizon's 4G deployment plans are a testament to the fact that the existing 3G networks simply won't support a rich 'true broadband' experience," the company said in a Feb. 18 statement. "The Internet has become an indispensable part of our lives, and consumers want to access it wherever they are-not just at home or in the office. Clearly, having more operators espousing the benefits of 4G can only serve to increase consumer awareness and demand for better services. This is a great place for Clearwire to be."

That said, Clearwire added, "Not all 4G networks are created equal. Differences in spectrum holdings and underlying network architecture will deliver different user experiences. Today, Clearwire customers experience better speeds and bandwidth than what is being described as next year's LTE networks."

Clearwire said it continues to "move full speed ahead with plans to introduce new mobile WiMax markets, services and devices this year," although, as usual, the company didn't name any target cities or declare any timetables.

Using a variety of network infrastructure providers, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone have been field-testing 4G LTE networks in Minneapolis, northern New Jersey and Columbus, Ohio. In addition, testing is being conducted in Budapest, Hungary; Dusseldorf, Germany; and Madrid, Spain. According to Verizon Wireless, the field trials showed download peak speeds of 50M to 60M bps, though the company warned that actual average download results would not be determined until the commercial launch of the new network.

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