As the industry continues to pit WiMAX against LTE in an epic battle for 4G supremacy, we must realize that the 4G future is not an either/or proposition.
This is a topic that I've written about before and an area with many differing opinions. In fact, if you do a quick Google search on the term "WiMAX vs. LTE" it returns well over 3 million results, a clear sign that there is no shortage of opinions on the so-called battle that exists between these two next-generation (4G) technologies.
You don't have to look hard to find a breakdown of the carriers and vendors that have pledged their support to one technology over the other, and analysis on how these organizations' support will affect the future of these technologies. Everyone is pitting the two technologies against each other in what they would have you believe is an epic battle for the future of wireless networks - but there's just one problem.
The WiMAX vs. LTE "battle" isn't a battle at all.
Neither of these technologies will emerge as victorious over the other, and neither will be forced to accept a role as the "also-ran" in the annals of tech history. In fact, both WiMAX and LTE can and likely will play equally important roles in the future of wireless networks. At one point I hypothesized that those roles would be "access" and "backhaul" - with LTE providing the access technology of choice and WiMAX providing an ideal backhaul technology for 4G networks. But I no longer think that WiMAX and LTE need to be pigeonholed into those exclusive categories.
Today, it seems as though both technologies will become viable 4G access technologies, while WiMAX still maintains its position as an ideal backhaul technology as well. Now, some will claim that either WiMAX or LTE must win from an access perspective, but more and more, that does not seem to be the case.
Take into consideration that, with the endorsement of North America's two largest carriers and the GSM carriers around the world, LTE certainly seemed to be "winning" when it comes to providing the future of wireless access. Many viewed this as the nail in the coffin for WiMAX as a 4G access technology. But Clearwire responded by rolling out WiMAX services in many major US metro markets and plans to cover 120 million people by the end of 2010.
Suddenly, WiMAX networks were no longer the "long awaited myths" that they once were, and they became a viable option for millions of people in 14 markets. Not only that, but the reviews have started pouring out of those 14 markets from users who love the service, adding even more fuel to the WiMAX fire. The momentum that WiMAX had lost seems to be gradually building again, and it can all be chalked up to one thing - availability.
The simple fact of the matter is that the reason WiMAX began losing momentum and favor is because it had been hyped for so long without any AVAILABLE networks to speak of. People got tired of hearing about WiMAX, and actually wanted to use WiMAX. Now that the first 14 networks are available and people are happy with the service, WiMAX has regained the favor of the public. If these networks continue to roll out on the schedule Clearwire has announced, then that favor will likely continue to grow. If they fail to keep up the new market introductions, do not be surprised to see the market turn its back on WiMAX again.
Now, the interesting thing is that LTE - thus far - has had a relatively smooth ride when it comes to public opinion. Due to the early support from some of the large carriers, LTE was met with great fanfare. But what many people fail to see is that LTE is doomed to the same exact fate as WiMAX when it comes to public favor and opinion. LTE is still in the honeymoon phase where t he market is still enamored with the possibilities. But eventually, the market is going to get tired of talking about LTE, and they are going to want to start connecting via LTE. Considering the estimates for LTE rollouts are currently pegged at 2012, I would wager that public favor for LTE will wane - just as it did for WiMAX - before the networks are even deployed.
And the reason will be exactly the same - availability. People can only be expected to be enamored with something for so long without experiencing it. Boatloads of bad press and public complaints will likely ensue for LTE, just as it did for WiMAX, because the industry and the public will want to get their hands on what they've been promised for the last couple of years. But just as the ailment of the bad publicity and lack of momentum for LTE in the years to come will be the same as that faced by WiMAX, so too is the remedy. Once LTE networks become available and people fall in love with the service, the tides will change and LTE will become hot again.
So what does this mean for the current "WiMAX vs. LTE" debate? Well, by the time LTE networks are deployed, WiMAX (if the networks continue to be deployed at the current rate) will already have a large installed base that will have been using the service for 1-3 years. Now, that does not meant that WiMAX will have "won", because WiMAX will still not be available in all markets, whereas LTE (being deployed by the larger carriers) will likely be available in more markets overall. Which leads me to my earlier conclusion - NEITHER technology actually "wins", because the 4G future is not an either/or proposition (either WiMAX or LTE).
In some locations, people will only have access to WiMAX for 4G access. In others, they will only have the option of LTE for 4G access. And in some locations, (in 2012-2013), consumers will be lucky enough to have the option to chose either WiMAX or LTE networks. In those cases, just as we see with today's 3G networks, people will make their choices based on which provider they trust most or which service they've received the best recommendations for - but it is highly unlikely that either will displace each other.
And the fact of the matter is, even if WiMAX does not become the next wireless access technology of choice, it would still has a very important role to play as a backhaul technology for both 4G and Wi-Fi networks worldwide. WiMAX was originally designed as a wireless backhaul technology to begin with, and it is especially well suited for that task.
Just as neither WiMAX or LTE have displaced or will displace the use of Wi-Fi (due the widespread adoption and level of consumer comfort with Wi-Fi), the "WiMAX vs. LTE" comparison is not an either/or proposition. WiMAX is already being used around the world as an ideal wireless backhaul technology for bandwidth intensive applications such as wireless video surveillance, traffic synchronization, and more - and it will continue to be used for that exact purpose, as well as the backhaul technology for wireless voice and data networks. So, as LTE networks begin to roll out, it is extremely likely that WiMAX technologies will also be used as the wireless backhaul for those networks, while LTE provides the access. And as advances are made in high-performance outdoor Wi-Fi, again, WiMAX will play a key role as the backhaul.
As an industry, it's important to do away with the sensational language that paints a picture of a one-technology 4G future. Instead, let us focus on how the existing (and future) wireless technologies will work together, and realize that there are significant, varied and non-exclusive market opportunities for both WiMAX and LTE.
Robb Henshaw is the Director of Marketing & Communications at Proxim Wireless, a manufacturer of end-to-end broadband wireless systems, where he oversees the company's global marketing and communications efforts. For the last 8 years he has been dedicated to helping develop the wireless industry, with expertise in technologies ranging from enterprise WLANs, to carrier-grade wireless backhaul, to WiMAX and point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access (BWA) solutions.