Malaysia ponders LTE-WiMax crossroad

Country's WiMax player touts its headstart in market as huge advantage, while manufacturer says LTE provides better economies of scale. Analysts say both technologies face challenges.

KUALA LUMPUR--While the debate rages on over which wireless technology--LTE or WiMax--will prevail as the next-generation wireless standard, industry analysts and players remain divided as to whether the two can co-exist in the burgeoning wireless market in Malaysia.

Long term evolution (LTE) is a yet-to-be deployed 4G technology that is expected to eventually see more prevalent adoption in the next two years, while WiMax is already available now but has yet to find widespread adoption worldwide.

The latter has had its fair share of bad news. Last year, Alcatel-Lucent announced plans to exit the WiMax business having entered it a few years before.

Last month, leading Russian WiMax operator Yota announced it will switch to LTE when it expands its network coverage to include five Russian cities. The operator will also overlay LTE in Moscow and St Petersburg in 2011, where it already has WiMax networks.

Nathan Burley, analyst at research firm Ovum, said there is no doubt mobile WiMax today has a more mature ecosystem compared to that of LTE, but there is also little doubt that the scale of LTE will surpass that of mobile WiMax in future.

"Mobile WiMax has achieved very little traction among mainstream mobile operators," Burley told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview. "This means that WiMax will subscale to LTE in the mobile broadband market."

He said mobile WiMax's key advantage is that it is available now but the downside is that it will remain a niche technology in comparison to LTE, especially in the mobility market.

Noting that the technology lacks competitiveness against other broadband alternatives, the analyst noted that WiMax is deployed mainly in urban areas of emerging markets where virtually all existing WiMax rollouts are concentrated.

He added that if unsubsidised, WiMax services are priced and positioned as a broadband option only for businesses or wealthy consumers.

The cost of customer equipment also remains the key stumbling block, as DSL (digital subscriber line) and HSPA (high speed packet access) offerings are more competitive due to greater economies of scale, he added.

Weighing in WiMax
Michael Lai, CEO of local WiMax operator Packet One Networks (P1), however, disagrees.

"We regard LTE like we would any other wireless technology competing or complementing with WiMax today. To date, there's only one commercial LTE deployment in the world but WiMax has currently over 500 deployments globally in more than 145 countries," Lai said in an e-mail interview

He noted that it would take at least another two years or more until Malaysia gets a commercial LTE network, and the headstart P1 has today is a huge advantage.

"When LTE comes, the focus will shift to how best for us to maximize our lead in the 4G race," he said.

Lai believes with the huge broadband demand in Malaysia, the various technologies can co-exist. "LTE, WiMax and 3G have roles to play in the wireless communications landscape for many more years to come."

Another WiMax player, YTL Communications, which is slated to launch its services next month, declined to respond to ZDNet Asia's questions.

Chia Yin Keng, head of solutions for Ericsson Malaysia, expects most cellular-based operators to adopt LTE. Ericsson, he added, does not manufacture WiMax gear.

"Major operators opting for LTE will help the industry gain economies of scale that would impact the price on both network equipment and devices," Chia said. "With the introduction of LTE, offering higher capacity and performance and backward compatibility with other 3G technologies, the WiMax business case will be further weakened."

He acknowledged that Malaysia's WiMax operators could choose to switch to LTE TDD (time division duplex) as the 2.3Ghz frequency band can be used by both technologies.

"We believe that Malaysia will have a tremendous growth in mobile broadband adoption, regardless of its access technology being HSPA evolution, LTE or WiMax," he said.

Asked if P1 has plans to migrate to LTE should the market warrants it, Lai remained coy. "Our commitment lies in the deployment and development of WiMax but our decisions will be governed by how we can deliver quality to our customers.

"For now it's with WiMax, but if in future we have to adopt another technology, then it is something we should look into," he said.

Teething LTE problems
Despite the challenges facing WiMax, the deployment of LTE is also not expected to be straightforward as incumbent and new players in Malaysia will face network deployment and engineering challenges, noted Shaker Amin, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

"New technologies, by their nature, present additional technical challenges and operators will need to properly manage the coexistence of networks, devices and services, at various stages on their paths to LTE," Amin told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

Regardless, the analyst said the 4G technology is globally supported by a large and experienced ecosystem of GSM-based operators and vendors.

Ericsson's Chia noted that besides having to allocate new spectrum for LTE in Malaysia, which will likely happen only in 2011, some important factors for success in driving mobile broadband include having sufficient network coverage and dealing with mobility management such as seamless voice and data handover, as well as roaming capabilities.

Amin pointed out that it is unlikely that LTE will be deployed in Malaysia within the next two years as the technology is dependent on the evolution of data demand and expected deployment elsewhere.

"Thus, we anticipate that Malaysia's WiMax players are likely to have enough success to attract continued support," he said.

Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.