The future of 4G is a tale of two technologies: LTE and mobile WiMax, but which technology is likely to win?
LTE (the long-term evolution of 3G) is the next generation of cellular technology, theoretically capable of supporting downlink and uplink speeds of at least 100Mbps and 50Mbps respectively, while mobile WiMax — or 802.16e — is a variant of the wireless standard for broadband specifically designed for mobile technologies and theoretically capable of symmetrical speeds of up to 70Mbps.
According to a new report by analyst firm In-Stat, mobile WiMax looks set to outpace LTE in the short term at least, as it has something of a head start; a South Korean WiMax variant, WiBro, was launched in 2006, while LTE is likely to get its first commercial rollout next year.
The analyst believes the $3bn (£1.9bn) Sprint/Clearwire WiMax rollout in the US will have a big impact on whether or not large worldwide operators opt to deploy mobile WiMax.
In-Stat also believes HSPA (high-speed packet access) — also known as 3.5G — could delay LTE rollouts and may, therefore, become mobile WiMax's "true competitor".
However, Phil Skeffington, associate at UK-based management consultancy Mott MacDonald Schema, said LTE and WiMax each have distinct advantages in different areas and could, therefore, both end up being part of a 4G future.
She told ZDNet.co.uk sister site silicon.com: "LTE and WiMax are complementary technologies. WiMax has been developed by users coming from a data background, whereas LTE has been developed by people coming from a voice background... There is no reason why a single operator would not use WiMax and LTE."
Even so, Skeffington predicted LTE will be rolled out by the majority of mobile operators, as it is integrated with the SIM management processes and systems, giving it "an in-built advantage for handset-based applications".
"Handset manufacturers are likely to build handsets that support 2G/3G and LTE. This will allow mobile operators to roll out LTE at a very steady rate. Users will fall back to 3G and 2G wherever there is a 'hole' in LTE coverage," she added.
But, beyond mobile handsets, WiMax has its own set of advantages, giving it an edge when it comes to web-browsing laptop users.
"WiMax is available now, and has five QoS [quality of service] levels which support different levels of prioritisation for different traffic types. LTE only has two: one for voice and one for everything else," Skeffington said.
"WiMax as a network is, therefore, more flexible in addressing different types of markets, [for example] public safety, emergency services, as well as real-time and non-real-time data," said Skeffington.
She added: "In the UK, nomadic internet-access demand is increasing rapidly at the moment, with some plans, including 3G to Wi-Fi roaming. So it looks like the nomadic laptop market will take off first, which would give WiMax the edge."
In the UK market, Skeffington said WiMax is being held back by the delay of the 2.6GHz spectrum auction, which is making it difficult for new operators to get to market. Telecoms regulator Ofcom expects the auction process for this swathe of spectrum to begin next summer.
The In-Stat report adds that mobile WiMax and LTE will represent only a miniscule portion of total 2G/3G/4G cellular subscriptions in 2013, with GSM/Edge/GPRS expected to account for more than 55 percent of the total 4.8 billion subscriptions.