2009 will not be the year 4G technologies go mainstream, according to industry experts, who also mostly agree WiMax's lead over cellular broadband will be short-lived, eventually being edged out by LTE (long term evolution).
The industry debate over the competing 4G technologies--namely WiMax and LTE, broadly--has been going on for some time, now. On the cellular side of the fence is LTE, the planned successor to the current "3.5G" HSPA (high speed packet access) standard. On the other side is WiMax, a wireless broadband standard deployed to deliver last-mile access over long distances.
While WiMax has had a headstart in rolling out commercial products, having been ratified two years ahead of LTE, most industry experts ZDNet Asia spoke to agreed the mobile broadband landscape will eventually be dominated by the latter.
Nathan Burley, analyst, Asia-Pacific at Ovum, said mass market availability of these 4G technologies will not come this year. While mobile WiMax will be available in 2009, its use and reach will be "limited", he said.
"LTE will not be commercially available until 2010 at the earliest," Burley added, noting that predecessor, 3G, did not go mass market until 2007. "By the same scale, LTE will probably not be mass market until around 2014," he said in an interview with ZDNet Asia.
But Burley is placing his bets on LTE. "The momentum and industry interest is clearly with LTE...Ovum expects mobile WiMax will retain more connections than LTE until 2013 and 2014. After this time, LTE will become clearly the leading technology," he said.
Ericsson Singapore's Folke Anger, CTO of multiple country accounts (SingTel), was more enthusiastic about LTE--unsurprising, given Ericsson's industry stance as a cellular broadband proponent.
"The first LTE networks will be deployed during 2009...HSPA will be the main technology for mobile broadband in the coming years," said Anger, in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.
Anger said LTE's global deployment will happen through the endorsement of large carriers such as China Mobile, Vodafone, Verizon Wireless and NTT DoCoMo.
"The interworking between [2G] GSM, [3G] WCDMA and HSPA and [4G] LTE will ensure a good user experience where voice calls and data sessions can be handed over seamlessly between radio access technologies," he said.
WiMax, on the other hand, will remain niche, limited to "certain regions in the world with limited or no interworking with deployed 2G and 3G networks", Anger noted.
Burley agreed with the Ericsson exec's take on HSPA: "It will continue to take time for the ecosystem of technology, networks, devices and so on to build and take 4G mainstream. In the meantime, HSPA will continue to provide the bulk of mobile broadband [services] with a continually improving user experience," he said.
Nortel Asia-Pacific's Nick Bromhead, Business Development Manager for LTE, too said WiMax's lead over LTE will "diminish within a couple of years".
Bromhead told ZDNet Asia mobile WiMax's commercial debut this year will give it a time-to-market advantage, but that he is looking at LTE as the "dominant 4G technology in virtually all global markets in the longer term".
He did indicate that there was a place for mobile WiMax "in the medium term", however, namely to serve new entrants in developed countries looking for a quicker way to have a mobile broadband service up and running.
Additionally, mobile WiMax may also serve ISPs in developing countries looking to provide broadband connectivity, helping them leapfrog the barrier of lacking existing copper infrastructure, he added.
WiMax's niche market in developing regions
Ovum's Burley agreed on the business case for WiMax in emerging markets. "We see strong use cases for WiMax as a last-mile mass market broadband technology, especially in emerging markets," he said, referring to operators using the technology to help stretch connectivity further than the reach of their wired infrastructure, to cover more users.
However, he said HSPA will remain the mainstay of developed markets, which will "make it difficult for mobile WiMax to compete in the mobility market [in developed regions]".
Jason Hao, wireless marketing director, Asia-Pacific, at Huawei, which makes both LTE and WiMax equipment, was decidedly optimistic about WiMax's staying power.
"There will always be demand for WiMax, owing to different priorities and business objectives," he said, mentioning "local conditions and factors such as regulatory restrictions, availability of spectrums and bandwidths, as well as the maturity of the industry chain".
Such conditions include the availability of mass market terminals and handsets, as well as commitment from industry players to come out with commercial applications, said Hao. "These factors will be the key in deciding which adoption of next generation technologies to use and deploy."
He said WiMax's headstart over LTE is a likely a factor for its success, as well.
Vikash Varma, chief executive officer at networking equipment maker, Stoke, said the current economic climate may add a boost to WiMax as a choice for carriers, over performing a 3G infrastructure upgrade. "Rather than engage in wholesale upgrades from 3G to 4G, operators are looking to extend the life of their existing infrastructure because of the current economic climate," said Varma, in an e-mail.
But he said it is likely the two technologies will co-exist. Varma also pointed to existing investment such as the US$400 million Sprint WiMax set up in the United States, as well as Korea's investment in WiBro.
"Rather than seeing a single technology coming to the fore in 2009, we think that this will be the 'year of offload'," he said, where carriers will try to move Internet traffic away from their private networks and onto public IP networks.
This move will pave the way for wireless technologies which encourage interworking between HSPA and Wi-Fi such as femtocells, said Varma.