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LTE vs WiMAX: A Little 4G Sibling Rivalry

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After writing up a storm about the next-generation cellular Long-Term Evolution standard a few weeks ago, I noticed that several commenters were confused, critical or just plain wrong about LTE and WiMax, the other 4G network. So I called a few people and tried to figure out the salient differences between the two. First, both are 4G technologies designed to move data rather than voice. Both are IP networks based on OFDM technology — so rather than rivals such as GSM and CDMA, they’re more like siblings. But sibling rivalry does exist, so there’s still plenty of differences to hash out.

Let’s start with the genesis of the two technologies.WiMax is based on a IEEE standard (802.16), and like that other popular IEEE effort, Wi-Fi, it’s an open standard that was debated by a large community of engineers before getting ratified. In fact, we’re still waiting on the 802.16m standard for faster mobile WiMax to be ratified. The level of openness means WiMax equipment is standard and therefore cheaper to buy — sometimes half the cost and sometimes even less. Depending on the spectrum alloted for WiMax deployments and how the network is configured, this can mean a WiMax network is cheaper to build.

If WiMax is the hippie, grass-roots parents on “Family Ties,” LTE is closer to Alex P. Keaton. The players determining the LTE standard through the 3GPP are comprised of carriers and equipment vendors who have been buying and selling the same proprietary boxes for years. The open, standards-based way of doing business isn’t exactly their modus operandi.

Fred Wright, an SVP that handles 4G networks for Motorola, believes LTE will be the standard chosen by 80 percent of the carriers in the world — good news for vendors such as such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, who have opted to stick with LTE. Of course, as GSM is the dominant mobile standard today, such a prediction isn’t all that surprising.

However, LTE will take time to roll out, with deployments reaching mass adoption by 2012 . WiMax is out now, and more networks should be available later this year. As for speeds, LTE will be faster than the current generation of WiMax, but 802.16m that should be ratified in 2009 is fairly similar in speeds.

So despite their differences in origin and current availability, the two siblings may grow closer with time, especially as newer iterations on the standard emerge. Wright said 85 percent of the work and technology for WiMax equipment will be reused in Motorola’s LTE equipment designs. The true battle isn’t between the competing 4G networks, but between wireless and wired broadband.

“The performance and capabilities of WiMax and LTE will only get better over time, and will represent a direct competitive threat to the existing broadband services,” Wright says. “People will make a choice, just like today when people are disconnecting their wired lines for voice.”

It’s an ambitious goal, and aside from the networking technology, things such as backhaul capacity, and availability of network devices will determine how wireless our world will become.

75 Responses to “LTE vs WiMAX: A Little 4G Sibling Rivalry”

  1. jay thomas

    as a direct sales rep for clearwire I can say that nothing is going to be able to compete with wimax due to one reason and that is cost. No other company is going to offer there services at the cost that clear does. Cell phone companys already have a competitor on the market and have not made any attempts to change there pricing to be more competitive. Clear offers a 3g/4g card for $55 a month in most markets that has the same accessability as anything running of sprints cdma network, with no usage cap. Its not about what technology is better but what is a more competitive price and you have to get away from the cell phone companys to find that. Especially in todays economy your average person will not know the difference between the two when surfing therefore from a sales standpoint that doesn’t matter. i will sell clear till i die!

  2. Hi,
    Nice article. I would like to know the technical difference between the both. Both uses OFDM, but why LTE is claimed to be faster and so?. How more bandwidth is achieved ? Looking forward to hear from you. THank you.

    • All laptops and notebooks you can buy supplied with WiMax. But there are very few cell phones supporting this technology. So if it is war of providers against mobile operators, I hope that it is provider (and WiMax) who will win. Because internet in Russia is chipper and customer-friendly, then all mobile telecommunications companies.

  3. Vic Ellescas

    I believe WiMax should be the future. The cellphone operators are scared about it. Because it’s like Linux vs Prop OS (like Win XP, OS X etc.) Imagine all our calls are made through Gizmo or Google talk or Skype, Yahoo voice etc? NO DATA PLAN NO TEXT MESSG PLAN etc. The future of cellphone will be like handheld PC’s. With voice and video, games etc. Cloud computing and communication is the future Google knows it. If the world have wifi on every 10 square meter would you sill your cellphone? A ipod touch will be sufficient.

    • You can do that on either (“Imagine all our calls are made through Gizmo or Google talk or Skype, Yahoo voice etc?”)technology since they are both pure IP.


  4. Neither WiMax (mobile or otherwise) or LTE is a 4G technology and to represent them as such is grossly misleading.

    Wikipedia for example relates what are the internationally agreed parameters for 4G. It’s likely Mobile WiMax falls hould on a number of these, but most obvious is the minimum requirement for 100Mbps.

    4G refers to the fourth generation of cellular wireless and is a successor to 3G and 2G standards….associates 4G with International Mobile Telecommunications-Advanced (IMT Advanced), though 4G is a broader term and could include standards outside IMT-Advanced. A 4G system may upgrade existing communication networks and is expected to provide a comprehensive and secure IP based solution where facilities such as voice, data and streamed multimedia will be provided to users on an “Anytime, Anywhere” basis and at much higher data rates compared to previous generations.

    4G is being developed to accommodate the QoS and rate requirements set by forthcoming applications like wireless broadband access, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), video chat, mobile TV, HDTV content, Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB), minimal services like voice and data, and other services that utilize bandwidth.

    The 4G working group has defined the following as objectives of the 4G wireless communication standard:

    A spectrally efficient system (in bits/s/Hz and bits/s/Hz/site),[1]
    High network capacity: more simultaneous users per cell,[2]
    A nominal data rate of 100 Mbit/s while the client physically moves at high speeds relative to the station, and 1 Gbit/s while client and station are in relatively fixed positions as defined by the ITU-R,[3]
    A data rate of at least 100 Mbit/s between any two points in the world,[3]
    Smooth handoff across heterogeneous networks,[4]
    Seamless connectivity and global roaming across multiple networks,[5]
    High quality of service for next generation multimedia support (real time audio, high speed data, HDTV video content, mobile TV, etc)[5]
    Interoperability with existing wireless standards,[6] and
    An all IP, packet switched network.[5]

  5. shoib ur rehman

    Totaly agreed with TQ & QB comments.Third world country has support and quality issue with wireline products.Currently Wimax is the only product which can provide seemless services to the bandwidth hungry markit.As far as LTE this product is still in R&D phase not avilable commercially.


  6. It comes down to this. The Carriers and the vendors who service them are trying to co-opt the freedom WiMax represents with the promise of LTE. One thing they may or may not see is that WiMax can plug the holes in the current patchwork of land line based high speed data networks. DSL and Cable have known infrastructure limitations that WiMax does not. The speed of any given network is limited to the last 1000 feet and if that infrastructure is not in place (or is choked down) the customer is left to look other places for reliable bandwidth. WiMax can offer that option a lot faster that LTE. Also LTE just may be an attempt to make wireless access proprietary and restricted rather than competing on a level playing field.

  7. Muhammad Qasim Butt

    Tariq Qureshi’s point regarding WiMAX deployments in Pakistan iis important and useful to understand the dynamics of the future of WiMAX. I am working in the broadband/WiMAX space and is heading Projects for a broadband microwave IP backhaul vendor in Pakistan. Over a course of three years, the number of WiMAX Operators has grown from one (Wateen) to four (Wateen, Mobilink, WiTribe, Augere). Wateen and Mobilink are running successful WiMAX nomadic broadband networks enjoying a subscriber toll of a hundred thousand plus and the other two are expected to make commercial launchs by 2nd quarter, 2009. The reason for their success: crippled copper infrastructure in cities and towns. DSL has failed to gain the kind of importance as an access technology providing broadband service the way it should have in Pakistan. DSL has been around for the last ten years but consumers are not happy with it. Telephone lines carry noise and get badly repaired after the infrastructure work going on in metro cities. Sensing the situation, regulator floated the 3.5 Ghz spectrum for auction in early 2004. Pakistan makes an excellent case for a success story of WiMAX in developing world. Most of the developing economies in Asia Pacific, Africa and Middle East does not have a fine copper infrastructure the way most of the North American and EU economies have. DSL has failed to increase the broadband penetration beyond certain level. WiMAX offers a promising solution as a replacement of the DSL. A wireless broadband network based on LTE somewhere in 2011will be a nice solution as well. However, diverting already committed broadband WiMAX subscribers will be a tough challenge especially when mobility is one aspect that is not important for a broadband consumer in developing economies. The picture will be something like this in 2012. Many developing nations especially in Middle East and Africa will have WiMAX broadband networks replacing DSL quickly. Developed nations will remain busy in offsetting the effects of Financial Crisis starting LTE deployments around 2011.

  8. Let me give you a real world practical interpretation of LTE Vs Wimax Vs all other technologies debate. The physical result of 6-month technology debate resulted in creation of Wateen Telecom in Pakistan, which has the most futuristic architecture.
    It is WiMAX 802.16e Local Loop, HFC and a national wide IP/MPLS infrastructure to deliver any service.

    As the company strategist and commercial head, the technology selection guidelines and criteria given for the new greenfield operations was summed up in two future-proof arguments.
    (a) Need a technology “available today”, that can delivery all services delivered on copper local loop, and equivalent BW at 50%-75% better price OR 4 X more simulated capacity/ on demand bandwidth (like when customer picks up the phone to make a call).
    (b) Has to have open standards platform with QOS, to enable all services avilable thru internet today, or in future within IP ecosystem companies for hosted or non-hosted applications to be delivered on thru public internet or private network as a B2B, B2C application.

    Regulatory restrictions were there as spectrum was only available in 3.5G with 10.5MHz + 10.5MHz, and no roaming beyond city parameters was allowed (area code restricted).

    WiMAX was the only open standard technology available in 3.5G that would meet the requirement (No LTE available), Once technology selection was made, Motorola became the integrator to deliver converged services integrated platform with Moto, Cisco & others hardware, powered by IMS & Soft-switch to meet all regulatory requirements.

    Practically the criteria was translated as:

    1. Similar “on-demand” Bandwidth/customer equivalent to copper localloop. Deliver better symmetrical BW to match landline copper infrastructures (not FTTH) at similar/better price point to become its substitute.
    2. Open standards mandatory, to utilize all applications developed in IP ecosystem.
    3. Services tested included: (a) PSTN replacement (same as voice) with all value-add features of follow me etc. etc. (b) Pt-2-Pt Video calling (c) Video-conferencing (d) Internet Access.

    Marketing wise here are the Yeah’s for WiMAX: WiMAX uptake in emerging markets is happening simply for two reasons. It is available today and is practically deployable as a substitute to copper infrastructure in 2.3, 2.5, 3.5 & 4.9 G allotted spectrum in different countries. The manufacturers have already promised cellular-like size & feature-rich handsets & PCMIA cards in similar price targets. So the concept is that the uptake in 10-25 years age market segment all over the world will be fast.

    For green-field operators, the targeted customer segments are broadband users’ first, broadband+ voice users next and voice only users third. Simple enough they will go where their products have best fit and least resistance from competitors. Customers experience will be same or better as fixed devices look the same as DSL/Cable modems and handheld devices look like cellular phones (See Nokia Wimax sets). Churn from GSM/CDMA will be there when customers need to add broadband services not available off GSM/CDMA platforms today). Voice-only users are not expected to churn, unless the value-add free information and commercial application become an attraction within affordable price.

    For existing operators adding WiMAX today is feasible, as they need to curb the churn and retain customers on one of their own platforms between WiMAX or GSM/CDMA platforms. The trend to become a multiplatform vendor is all ready there all over the world, so when LTE is finally available the carrier’s will see how best economically it best services the market requirements at that stage.

    Vendor’s have no favorites in technologies if they are manufacturing them. To them what matters is the sale. Most large vendors have bought out startups as they forecasted the WiMAX technology demand to grow. Navini and Next-net are examples.

  9. I think the Mobile operators and cellular equipment providers are dead wrong in their approach to mobile broadband. They have been minting money of cell phones and their infrastructure, so they believe the world for mobile data is just the same. In fact all the cell phones in the world combined together is no match for the amount of data consumed on notebook computers. So if they keep drinking koolaid keep proclaiming LTE, instead of understanding why WiMAX was created and what really drives it, the market forces will wipe them out. Go WiMAX!

  10. Yes, the “Open” standard will mean that different manufactures can compete to sell base stations to operators, but more importantly, it means that users can buy service from ANY provider within range. This is good for schools and colleges who may hold licenses (particularly the 4th channel or mid band part of their license. While many have leased 3 of their four channels to Sprint, they can use their forth one on their campus for all kinds of service directly to student hand sets and laptops. LTE will never allow that.

    • True story, lets not forget it was college kids trying to save money on music that lead to the decline of the juggernaut that was the recording industry… If everyone on campus uses WiMax enabled devices on campus then their parents will likely have WiMax at home for them too…

  11. Mohammad

    Wimax will be game changer in Wireless Industry. Basically, unleashing wired IP to Mobile IP. Watch out, Cisco, Wireless Carriers and even Cable Operators(WiMAX technically provide Cable Channels).

  12. The only difference between WiMax and LTE for me is that Wimax is available now and LTE is not!
    Mainly consumers have the choice between Cable, DSL and Wimax. So far to my knowledge only ClearWire is offering Wimax. So why talking about LTE all the time if not available yet? Instead promote Wimax like I did in Grants Pass OR, I sold more than 700 so far and all my clients love it! They don’t care if it is LTE or Wimax only that it is available and affordable.
    So if ATT, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and Other want to sleep and wait for LTE too bad for the consumer. Hopefully Google will see that as an opportunity. If a French man can sell more than 700 ClearWire in one year in a small rural city in Oregon. One can only imagine what Google could do by investing in ClearWire!!!

    • Google is a Clearwire investor and shareholder, however it does seem they are hedging their bets since they have signaled they are going to work with Verizon on making Android devices to run on their yet to be deployed LTE network…

  13. I completely agree with Clonmore. Hey, even now, EV-DO Rev B and HSPA have higher throughput than Wimax(802.16e). The only way Wimax could be widely successful is if Intel integrates it in all it’s chips, and consumers find it easier to upgrade using laptop rather than just the operator.. kind of like finding wifi.

    • Intel Centrino 2 chips will be built for both WiMax and WiFi capabilities… The simple fact that WiMax is designed similar to WiFi does give it an advantage (WiFi devices far outnumber that of any cellular standard since WiFi is free after initial costs) despite the backward compatibility of LTE, carriers are still likely to use their backward policies of restricting IP-based apps and other features that threaten their current business model.

  14. I think LTE being based on a flat architecture, there are more parallels between WiMaX and LTE than the differences. In long term, the evolution (Pun intended) would be driven by cost factor and timing.

    WiMaX at this stage has benefit of timing, whereas LTE trumps from cost factor (upgrade path). If 80% operators move towards LTE in the future, then it remains to be seen how much interoperability would be implemented between this two competing standards and how much the big operators would be willing to make that happen.

    Having said that, LTE has interim solutions as mentioned by Clonmore, whereas WiMaX is working on 802.16m to match LTE on performance levels. Looking at whole picture, we see quite similar architectures in 2012, but question is how do you get there ?

    Disclaimer: I work for NSN and have worked on both technologies and do not advocate any one in particular.

    • You make a very important point, interoperability. It is difficult now to get a ROAMing agreement with one of the big operators, even if your equipment is compatible. I suspect that it will continue to be more difficult

  15. Clonmore

    @Shah, my point is that if you’re an operator on 3PGG you get enhanced network performance by upgrading to HSPA+ (software and i think moderate hardware upgrades) at a lesser cost to the financial outlay on a totally new infrastructure in the form of WiMAX. Cost on HSPA+ is less and yet the service improvement offers a bridge between 3G and LTE.

    Whether of not WiMAX is IP-based is not important, it is all about QoS for the customer. I’m by no means an advocate of HSPA/LTE but this point hadn’t been addressed.

  16. Michael

    Hey wait a minute! Philadelphia may be “colder” than Austin, but by Tartu standards it is almost tropical (a bit of fun from probably the only reader who has lived in both places).

  17. techboy2000

    80% of the world will go to LTE (I think it will be closer to 90%). The wildly successful biggest carriers in the USA (AT&T, Verizon) are going to LTE. The punch drunk, comical, and strategically challenged Sprint is going to use WiMax. Hmm, as a manufacturer of cool mobile devices who will I target for my best devices?

    Game over, WiMax will be a cute little rural niche. Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?

    • Huntley

      Your comment is right on and is what always happens in the marketplace. The superior technology (I’m not claiming that WiMax is superior to LTE or vice versa) doesn’t always win out, but rather cost and adaption rates.

  18. Can’t Wimax be put up twice as fast as LTE, and works father than LTE and is less expensive?? I mean Wimax seems like the way to go. Now sprint needs to get that moving or Google if they won the Spectrum. I’d rather have Wimax.. Let’s go Spring get that To Boston…

  19. Clonmore

    interesting article but no mention of 3GPP ‘bridge’ technologies (such as HSPA+) which will offer advanced rates in the interim period waiting for LTE. This negates the advantage of time you’ve suggested WiMAX has over LTE.

    Still the main question boils down to infrastructure cost, the 3GPP route will involve less investment, upgrades from 3/3.5G to 4G, as opposed to totally new WiMAX kit – both hardware and software. Not to mention the fact of reliability, the 3GPP route has legacy whereas WiMAX is coming in from left-field – it will be interesting to see if operators are prepared to take this gamble, or let someone else do it first.

    I still think WiMAX is destined for more success in developing countries, where there is less of a 3G legacy and therefore the issue of investment cost is levelled.

    • Anthony Wandeto

      Hi Clonmore, I think 3G/4G is destined for more success in developing countries than WiMAX. Investment cost is an obsession in Africa and clearly, Re-use of 2G and 3G Base stations gives most African Mobile Operators a head-start. Case in point: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the leaders in Mobile Telecoms development (Sub-Saharan Africa) – 3G in these countries is hot! Wimax operators emerged earlier than 3G and have been overtaken and almost crushed before they could even make a difference in the data market. I strongly believe 4G is likely to dominate in the West, and the same effect will trickle down to Africa where the middle-class (bulk of internet users) and the younger generation are more likely to trust a Mobile operator than a Wimax Operator (mostly seen as ISPs).


      • Anthony Wandeto

        I strongly believe LTE is likely to dominate in the West, and the same effect will trickle down to Africa where the middle-class (bulk of internet users) and the younger generation are more likely to trust a Mobile operator than a Wimax Operator (mostly seen as slow ISPs).

  20. Ignacio Berberana

    YYour point about the ‘openness’ (sorry if the word does not exist) of LTE and WiMAX is not clear to me. In terms of access to the standards’ documents, for example, LTE is more open (IEEE draft standards are not accessible to non IEEE members unless you pay, whilst all the documents in 3GPP are accessible). Standards in 3GPP are more detailed than in IEEE (the latter incorporate a number of optional features, I suppose in order to facilitate their approval), but IEEE standards for WiMAX are later refined and complemented in some aspects (e.g., network architecture) by WiMAX Forum (i.e., 3GPP = IEEE + WiMAX Forum). And WiMAX Forum is certainly less open than 3GPP.

    The one thing that is not true hitherto is that WiMAX equipment is cheaper than 3GPP standards equipment. I work for a large operator and have been involved in RFI/RFQ processes, and I can assure you that as of today WiMAX base stations are not cheaper than HSPA ones, for example. Besides the fact that a number of components are very similar or the same (racks, power amplifiers, even processing cards, etc.), the economies of scale are the fundamental factor that dictates the final price. And as of today, numbers are on the 3GPP side.