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Tech argument: LTE vs. WiMAX

Yes, we know WiMAX is nearly dead, but it can still deliver data in industry

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Wait, we're still arguing this one? Why?

Since we now know that Sprint plans to build and operate its own LTE network, it's pretty fair to say that WiMAX is dead as a technology for consumer handsets in the United States. Once Sprint gets its LTE network up and running, it will mean that all three major wireless carriers in the United States support LTE, as both Verizon and AT&T have already commercially deployed LTE in various markets.

The chief reason for WiMAX's downfall in the consumer handset space is a simple one: The tech industry likes uniformity and WiMAX wasn't adopted by enough carriers to make it the de facto standard for 4G mobile data in the U.S. Think of it in terms of economies of scale: It's much more profitable for device manufacturers to sell devices to multiple carriers by just slapping LTE radios and chipsets into devices instead of having to make separate devices for different carriers or having to insert dual radios into their devices.

WiMAX has suffered significantly in the past two years as LTE has been adopted by more and more commercial operators around the world,” writes wireless analyst Andy Seybold. “It should be clear to everyone by now that LTE will be the 4G technology of choice for worldwide deployment and that for the first time in many years we are on the verge of moving toward a worldwide standard for data (first) and later voice services. Support for WiMAX has faltered since Intel pulled the plug on its program to make WiMAX a world standard 4G technology and it stopped investing millions of dollars in supporting WiMAX around the world.”

The other reason that WiMAX never caught on in the United States is that the only carrier to adopt it early on happened to be Sprint. Sprint bet big on WiMAX in 2006, as it earmarked $5 billion to build a nationwide network with the assumption that having 4G services up and running before Verizon and AT&T got around to launching their own LTE networks would give Sprint a major competitive advantage in the wireless data marketplace. But with Verizon getting its LTE network fired up in 38 markets last year, Sprint's time-to-market advantage expired before the company had made significant progress in upping its customer base relative to Verizon and AT&T.

It also hasn't helped that Sprint has been financially in tumult ever since its merger with Nextel in 2005 and the subsequent adoption of the Nextel iDEN network that has cost the carrier millions of wireless subscribers over the past several years. Couple this with the fact that Sprint's partner in building its WiMAX network, Clearwire, has been flirting with financial doom over the past year and you can see how WiMAX just wasn't well-positioned to become the dominant wireless technology for consumer handsets in the United States.

What's more, Verizon's LTE network bested Sprint's WiMAX network in a speed test run by PC World earlier this year that showed Verizon's LTE laptop air cards provided average download speeds of 6.5Mbps while Sprint's WiMAX services delivered download speeds of between 3M and 6Mbps. While this difference doesn't seem all that drastic, PC World found that Sprint's WiMAX network was not available on a consistent basis, meaning that users who subscribed for 4G services weren't guaranteed to have access to those services wherever they went.

So does this mean WiMAX is toast all together? Well, no.

While WiMAX isn't likely to be used for your smartphone, it does have several other uses besides downloading Angry Birds. WiMAX Forum Vice President Mohammad Shakouri says that although major U.S. wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have chosen to deploy LTE over 700MHz spectrum, WiMAX will still find a home delivering data for a wide variety of U.S. industries including airports, oil and gas companies and the burgeoning smart grid industry.

In the United States, for instance, fuel transportation company Explorer Pipeline was one of the early adopters of Sprint's WiMAX-based 4G Enterprise WAN and it has deployed the network at its storage facility in Houston primarily to handle supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) traffic that is used to operate the pipeline and control pressure valves to ensure safety, among other things. Shakouri says we should expect to see WiMax pop up in a wide range of different devices in the near future that go beyond flashy consumer handsets.

"The difference between the WiMAX industry and LTE is that WiMAX is also going more after complementary solutions," he explains. "You will see WiMAX providing communications needs in terms of building things such as the smart grid."


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