WiMax could prove to be the winner in the 4G race against the long-term evolution of 3G simply because the technology is here first.
Teresa Kellett, director of global development for telco Sprint Nextel, said during a panel discussion at this week's WiMax Forum Asia 2008 that WiMax's first-mover advantage over the long-term evolution of 3G (LTE) may eventually help the former become a more widely adopted technology.
LTE is touted as the successor to the existing UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) 3G technology, capable of supporting significantly faster data rates.
Comparing the two competing technologies to another pair of competing standards — GSM and CDMA — Kellett said GSM is the dominant cellular technology globally because it was first to market. CDMA, on which Sprint Nextel operates, has a stronger footprint in the US.
"The head start a technology has is the key differentiator," said Kellett.
Another panelist, Scott Wickware, vice president of carrier networks for Nortel, said the exchange of knowledge is also beneficial to current players in the market in helping them in areas such as establishing business plans.
"This is the first time I'm seeing so much co-operation in the industry, so it's good to be a first mover," said Wickware.
Garth Collier, managing director of Intel's WiMax division for Asia-Pacific and Japan, said he is "seeing for the first time a convergence in the cellular industry".
Collier raised the point of WiMax and 3G being complementary and the possibility of co-existence.
While the market waits for LTE, WiMax will serve as a "data overlay" for 3G, delivering data where 3G's speeds are inadequate, while the cellular network continues to handle voice well, Collier said.
The emergence of dual-mode or dual-band devices is most likely to happen in the "early days" as the industry in developed markets embraces 4G technology, he said. Raising the example of Korea, he noted the availability of models which combine both HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) and WiBro (wireless broadband) functionality.
In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Wickware said he expects WiMax to find its place as a more cost-effective and quicker way for providers to turn on broadband in rural areas without having to lay physical copper or fibre infrastructure to homes.
This concept is not just restricted to emerging markets. "Even in developed countries, there are pockets where coverage is not good, where the operators have not had a business case to provide standard broadband," said Wickware.
Furthermore, the ecosystem is growing, Wickware said. "When you consider that companies such as Intel are very much backing WiMax, it is not a stretch to imagine that many PCs or consumer electronics devices will drive the deployment of WiMax in developed urban areas too," said Wickware.