In a video released at the beginning of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Clearwire clearly demonstrates that it is very close to achieving the 100M-bps download speeds required by the ITU definition of 4G wireless communications. The company released a YouTube video of the tests, which are being conducted in Phoenix on an ongoing basis.
The Clearwire tests, which were conducted in a mobile environment, showed that by using the 20MHz bandwidth, Clearwire’s LTE and WiMax are currently capable of producing 90M- to 95M-bps download speeds, with uploads in the 30M-bps range. This is dramatically faster than anything demonstrated by any other carrier, and it shows that with a few tweaks, Clearwire will reach the ITU’s 100M-bps requirement to actually be considered 4G.
There are a few caveats, however. As you can see in the Clearwire tests, the actual throughput is impacted by the network infrastructure. Clearwire’s tests exceeded the network capacity in one set of tests, and only when it used its own servers was it able to reach full speed. It’s also worth noting that the Clearwire test environment was essentially one mobile tester having the network to itself, something that would never happen in real life.
But as Clearwire points out, the company has massive spectrum resources. Providing lightly loaded 20MHz channels to a large number of users is easier for Clearwire than it might be for other companies. The fact that it can provide these speeds with both WiMax and LTE also means that Clearwire may have room to accommodate more than one carrier. So if T-Mobile contracts with the company for LTE as it moves beyond its current HSPA+, Clearwire may be able to handle both Sprint and T-Mobile.
But this isn’t to suggest that T-Mobile is resting on its laurels. That company also produced a video of its own speed tests conducted in Las Vegas using the existing T-Mobile HSPA+ network. T-Mobile has just announced that it has doubled the speed of its network from a theoretical 21M bps to 42M bps. The speed tests conducted by T-Mobile did not show anything close to the speeds that Clearwire was able to show, but the T-Mobile tests were conducted on a live network using existing laptop wireless cards.
Clearly there are speed differences between T-Mobile’s HSPA+ and Clearwire’s LTE and WiMax. T-Mobile was only able to get speeds of just under 30M bps despite the theoretical 43M-bps capability. But T-Mobile was using its operational network that presumably was also being used by all of those other T-Mobile customers out there in Las Vegas at this huge trade show. Clearwire had the network to itself.
Clearwire Needs to Prove Results on Real-World Network
Equally important, Clearwire was only able to accomplish its best speeds on a dedicated server with very fast backhaul. T-Mobile, while it has converted most of its backhaul to Gigabit Ethernet, is still sharing it with other users.
This does not diminish the importance of Clearwire’s demonstration. Despite the circumstances, Clearwire may be the closest to achieving true 4G operations anywhere in the world. Tests in Sweden, which has the fastest 4G network in commercial operation, top out at 80M bps. In other words, Clearwire has made a significant leap forward in operational speed, although it needs to be able to demonstrate that it can keep its speeds up on a commercial network in use by other devices.
The advantage that Clearwire has is that the company can do both WiMax and LTE, and it has enough spectrum to spread out users so there’s not a lot of contention for radio access. The challenge Clearwire has is that the rest of the network may not be ready for real 4G speeds. That was one of the issues that Clearwire faced in its demonstration-the chokepoint was the capacity of a server being used to measure speed, not the network.
Backhaul and network capacity will be problems for every 4G carrier as their speeds increase. While carriers can upgrade their backhaul to support more 4G users than they have now by moving to 10 Gigabit or even 100 Gigabit Ethernet, the rest of the Internet remains stubbornly immune to speed upgrades. So what you may find is what T-Mobile found in its tests-that you can go really fast, but it might not matter if the other end of your connection isn’t prepared for those speeds.
While it’s clear that at least some 4G operators will in fact achieve true 4G in the very near future, it’s not clear that the Internet will be ready for them. You may find instead that outside of some dedicated download sites, such as places that sell TV shows or movies, you’re not going to see real 4G speeds anytime soon.
Still, Clearwire is on the cusp of delivering speeds that even a few months ago seemed unlikely, and that’s a significant accomplishment. The fact that T-Mobile is delivering the speeds it demonstrated on a live network is also significant. Now we just have to see the rest of the infrastructure get up to speed.