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Wireless networking options: WiMAX or LTE?

Wireless networking options, including WiMAX and 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE), are discussed as future technologies.

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Wireless networking options, including WiMAX and 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE), are discussed as future technologies. Technically considered pre-4G technologies both are being considered heavily for the next step in wireless technology by competing companies.

Brighthand news articles and forum posts often talk about future wireless networking standards, but not everyone is familiar with these.

The two leading candidates for the next generation of wireless are known as Wireless Microwave Access, or WiMAX, and 3GPP Long Term Evolution, usually called just LTE.

Both LTE and WiMax are technically considered pre-4G technologies, since they're above and beyond the "3.5G" platform of HSPA, but don't meet the astronomically high goals set for 4G networks. In practice, though, this distinction is generally ignored, and both WiMAX and LTE are referred to as "4G."

Both are built around what's called an "All IP Network," meaning that in terms of how they operate, they have more in common with Wi-Fi or the Internet at large then they do with traditional cellular networks.

What an all IP network does is pretty simple: it provides a high-speed Internet connection. Any additional features like phone calls are run over top of that, using services like VoIP. In effect, instead of being like a traditional cell phone, these would behave more like wireless DSL. Make no mistake though, both WiMax and LTE are expected to see heavy use for mobile phones.

Speed comparisons
In terms of raw specs LTE offers more bandwidth, with talk of up to 173 megabits, but these numbers are questionable since no production-level hardware currently exists. WiMAX likewise advertises up to 70 megabits of bandwidth, but existing systems have shown actual performance in the 3-4 megabit range for mobile devices.

In real world applications, it's doubtful that either standard will offer speeds better than 5-10 megabits to the end user, at least in early rollouts, due to limitations on signal strength, available capacity, and allocated radio spectrum.

Who's using what
On the business side, LTE has the advantage of being the favored solution for three of the world's largest wireless carriers: Vodafone, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T. Even though the standard is still in development, all three companies have announced plans to adopt it for their next-generation networks.

WiMax does, however, have a couple of hole cards of its own. First, it has Intel behind it, which means that WiMax support is likely to be integrated into many of the forthcoming high-end notebooks running Intel hardware.

Second, WiMax is going to be around sooner. Sprint plans to launch its "Xohm" WiMax service some time this year, likely in the summer, but no LTE services are expected to be rolled out before 2010. This puts WiMAX in a position to accumulate a large base of users, devices, and coverage before LTE ever launches in even one city.

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