Will LTE and WiMAX converge?

Like Betamax and VHS, the high speed wireless data technologies known as WiMAX and LTE were thought by many to be incompatable, if only because they are backed by different standards organizations.

However, an industry analyst believes they have so much in common they may soon converge.

Robert Syputa, a Seattle-based CEO of  Maravedis.com, a wireless broadband research and consulting firm, has been arguing for some time that the two technologies are converging.

Now he has proof: A chipmaker he won’t identify has told him that by the end of the year it will have a multimode chip for a handset that can handle both LTE and WiMAX frequencies.

“This vendor hasn’t said any carrier has made a commitment” to buying the chips, Syputa stressed. However, he believes the chipmaker wouldn’t be making the effort unless a carrier has promised to buy a handset equipped with such a chip from a manufacturer.

Other companies he wouldn’t name are also looking into combined WiMAX / LTE products, he said.

An official at one telecom equipment maker scoffed at the notion of the two technologies merging. “I don’t see it happening,” said Tom Gruba, senior director of product marketing for wireless networks at Motorola Inc.’s enterprise mobility solutions division. Motorola makes both LTE and WiMAX equipment for carriers.

WiMAX operators are mainly trying to go after communities that either don’t have wired broadband service or are underserved, he explained, who offer USB dongles for laptops or modems for desktop computers for access. LTE, on the other hand, is the choice of wireless carriers who want a fast data access technology for the handsets they sell.

“They’re really serving two different needs,” he concluded.

Nor, he suggested, is there any need for the technologies to converge. The demand for bandwidth is growing so fast that both are needed.

On the other hand, he said Motorola equipment has been designed so WiMAX and LTE base stations can be stacked in the same rack (although linked to separate antennas).

Jean-Pierre Lartigue, senior vice-president of product marketing and strategy at Alcatel-Lucent, another telecom equipment maker that serves both markets, said the discussion depends on what convergence means.

He doubts there will be a merger of technologies so WiMAX and LTE gear run on the same network. However, he acknowledged that in some circumstances an operator might want to shift from WiMAX, which is largely a fixed wireless broadband solution, to LTE, which is used by wireless carriers with nation-wide networks.
WiMAX and LTE are broadband data technologies that promise download speeds significantly faster than most carriers get on their current networks.

At the moment, in Canada the debate may not be important. Our biggest wireless operators – BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. have only just switched to HSPA+ networks, one step below LTE. Most of the new wireless entrants such as Wind Mobile, Mobilicity, Videotron and Shaw Cable will also have HSPA+ networks. Because of the size of Canadian population and the ability of HSPA to be upgraded to download speeds of around 80 Megabits per second (under ideal conditions), many industry analysts believe it will be several years before they need to upgrade to the faster LTE. Meanwhile only one operator, Craig Wireless, is going into WiMAX, and only in B.C. and Manitoba.

Bell and Rogers have the most WiMAX spectrum in this country, which they share in a partnership called Innukshuk. So far, however, they’re reserving it for underserved areas they don’t want to bring their own networks to. But in the future an ability to use LTE equipment on WiMAX spectrum could change that strategy.

In the U.S., however, WiMAX and LTE are about to go head to head. Clearwire Corp. has been building a WiMAX network for Sprint Nextel Corp. and two cable operators, Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp. It has 438,000 subscribers in 27 cities.

On the LTE side, Verizon Wireless is in the middle of trials in Boston and Seattle and plans to start commercial LTE service in select cities by the end of the year. On Monday it said tests have shown the network is capable download speeds under ideal conditions of up to 50 Megabits per second. To keep up, AT&T will launch LTE service next year. MetroPCS Wireless Inc. will start service either late this year or in 2010.

Having a handset that can handle LTE and WiMAX would be a useful product for an operator.

It’s not so far-fetched, says Syputa. “The technologies are very similar,” he points out.

WiMAX and LTE are both flat architecture IP-based technologies based on OFDM (Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing). A big step to linking the two would be agreement with standards organizations such as the IEEE, the WiMAX Forum and the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project). Already, Syputa says, these groups collaborate.

Patent pools have formed for WiMAX and have started to form for LTE, he notes. More importantly, the ecosystems of the technologies are increasingly overlapping. Several major telecom equipment makers – such as Alcatel-Lucent and Motorola – make equipment for both standards.

Still, Syputa acknowleges there are problems: Governments have assigned “islands of different frequencies” to the two technologies, he said. And in a research note published two years ago, he said that the 10 per cent differences between WiMAX and LTE systems of manufacturers makes them incompatible.

But he insists that just as the so-called 3G competing networks of GSM and EVDO converged, so could LTE and WiMAX networks.


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