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Our Readers Take on the LTE v. WiMAX Debate

When I wrote last week about Sprint (s S) giving up control of its 4G future, my post engendered a lively debate among some of our commenters about the technical merits of LTE and WiMAX. Since most of our readers aren’t planning a network buildout, they may have skimmed over the arguments, but buried amidst the talk of spectrum propagation and capacity are key points that may determine which technology wins in the 4G sibling rivalry between WiMAX and LTE.

The gist of the comments is that WiMAX has some technical advantages over LTE in terms of its spectrum (especially in urban areas) and the openness of the standard (which leads to lower cost equipment for now), but it still faces business challenges. Om is right to be skeptical of WiMAX, especially since two equipment vendors Nortel (s NT) and Alcatel-Lucent have respectively halted and reduced their WiMAX business lines. So here’s what our commenters told us:

So, despite some of the technical arguments, the money appears to be on LTE. However, the LTE network may not be as fast as we’ve hoped. It may be hard to face, but it looks like we may end up disappointed again on mobile broadband.

16 Responses to “Our Readers Take on the LTE v. WiMAX Debate”

  1. Just to clarify some of the comments I saw:

    WiMAX is a 4G standard (OFDMA) – it’s not a 3G standard (CDMA). Just because WiMAX and LTE will not initially be IMT-Advanced-compliant does not mean they are not fourth generation mobile wireless air interfaces.

    Yes, WiMAX has to have two radios (WiMAX and CDMA (1x and EV-DO)) to be able to also work on Sprint’s network. It is the same situation for LTE. An LTE chip only works on an LTE network. If you have an EDGE/HSPA/LTE chip, then it will work on those networks (2G/3G/4G) . . . and those are 3 radios. Integration on the chipset side will help bring the costs down, not matter which technologies are involved.

  2. I Think you have to look at the CDMA vs GSM history to see where WiMAX is headed. Yes, maybe it has a few merits and “firsts” on the wiMAX side, but you need to consider the following —

    1) Scale — Sprint/ClearWire seem to be the only operators out there doing anything substantial. That doesnt seem like enough scale as far as costs of equipment/subscribers go for any “big” players to attack this market

    2) Interoperability with older networks — WiMAX *needs* to work with 1x/CDMA on Sprint since its going to be a while before we can have a truly national WiMAX network. That will surely drive up the equipment costs since you will have two radios inside the device!!

    3) Cost/Business Model issues — WiMAX is trying to put publise itself as different from cellular and risks as being looked as a “bigger” WiFi for consumers. Consumers are accustomed to “free” wi-fi so it will be a tough sell for carriers to charge for WiMAX. In addition, new WiFI standard work will likely have a cannibalization effect on WiMAX as it supports mobility, higher speeds…

    4) Just yesterday, Om pointed out, most big carriers are already satisfied with HSPA+ roll outs etc for the next few years to meet consumer demands so it doesnt look like there will be enough demand for a service like WiMAX specially since it will be at best patchy.

  3. Jesse Kopelman


    The reason WiFi does not belong in this discussion is because this is about what will be the dominant 4G technology for carriers (with a US-only focus). Given the topology of the US and the paucity of competition, WiFi is not going to cut it. It’s a great solution for urban areas, but try deploying it in the sub-100 people/sqmi regions where 50% of your potential customers live. Having to deploy 1,000,000 base-stations to get nationwide coverage is not going to cut it from an operations standpoint. Could WiFi be used to complement 4G in high user density scenarios? Definitely and it should. However, carriers have thus far been loath to stray much from a cookie-cutter, one tool for all jobs, approach to network deployment.

  4. I would like to point out that WiFi (WiFi mesh) is a major player in this field as well. And yes, I am talking about full mobile broadband WiFi (up to 200 mph).

    If you take Strixsystems for example. They offer nodes that can mesh up and provide the 10 Mbps U/D goodput on the tenth hoop with latency smaller than 30ms (less than 3 ms per hoop). And if the backhaul is spaced on every 3-4 nodes you get 20 Mbps mobile U/D trough the grid. In normal, urban settings you talk about 1,5 Gbps per square kilometer. And this is possible TODAY, all with “prehistoric” a/g 802.11. With 802.11 n, due in 2009, the bandwidth will jump up considerably. 802.11 VHT, due to 2012 is promising a Gb of throughput.

    Granted, due to the limitation of the 802.11 x technology, the reach of the single node is (dependent on the antenna technology) 400m (omni antenna) to 1500-2000m (sector antenna) which is considerably less than both LTE and Wimax. But technology is much cheaper so it kind of levels there. And there is always the client side limitation (smart phones, notebooks…) that is the real problem in uploading limits. And there are billions of WiFi devices out there already.

    I would personally get above Wimax vs. LTE (vs. WiFi) argument becouse every single technology listed here has it’s ups and downs. I believe that the convergence of these technologies is the answer. Strixsystems for example is developing nodes that will work with both 802.11 a/g/n (WiFi) with 802.16 e (Wimax) on a single layer2 IP network. They are also planing to get LTE into the mix as well. So you will get the technology you need on the same network.

    just my 5 cents…. I do apologize on my written English as it is not my primary language.

  5. Actually, a lot has to do with the pricing. If the LTE guys keep the same old 3G cell mentality ($80/month unlimited access for a PC, 5G caps, etc) and Clearwire keeps the Xohm mentality ($30-$50 plans, multiple device discounts, no capacity limits), Clearwire could do fine.

    If I could have affordable wireless broadband at home and on a netbook, I’d go for it in an instant. That might happen with Clearwire. It won’t happen with AT&T and Verizon.

  6. First, let me say that I love the fact that this topic is being covered here on GigaOM. This is an issue that will soon likely affect all of us, whether we yet know it or not.

    My personal opinion is that yes, LTE will probably win out overall. Late last year at Wimax World, here in Chicago, I sat next to and had the privilege of sitting next AT&T’s director of Infrastructure, who happened to be the keynote speaker that day. His message to the group was loud and clear: AT&T was moving forward with LTE and he didn’t come right out and say it, but it almost seemed like he was saying “you better jump on the wagon, or get out of the way.” To me, that made sense for him to say that. After all, it’s really in a service provider’s best interest to get more service providers using the same standardized equipment because it drives the cost of that equipment down. The explosive growth of WiFi is a prime example. Considering AT&T’s formidable presence vs. Sprint and Clearwire’s dwindling influence, my bet is on LTE.

    That said, can you blame Sprint/Clearwire for pushing Wimax out now? They’re making headlines; they’re beating LTE to the punch; they’re diversifying their offerings; they’re making things exciting again; and they’re certainly beginning to put the term Wimax into everyday conversations. For that, I think they should be applauded and I wish my former Terabeam colleagues at Sprint and Clearwire all the best.

    (By the way, I thought it was interesting that Alan Weissberger suggests we shouldn’t be referring to WiMax and LTE as true 4G-level services at all. Read his article here:

  7. First, great story. You are on to something here :-)

    The promise of a $3B nationwide network is now more likely to cost $10B, something Clearwire does not have and Intel and Sprint would not underwrite (anymore). Current WiMAX users in the US should enjoy the spotty coverage where you have it, it’s unlikely that we will see “NFL” city coverage any time soon.

    It is unlikely, given the economic climate, that Clearwire can deploy more cities without some serious funding or re-vector towards LTE and get economic incentives from the 3G community of vendors. But, the spectrum is indeed valuable. Maybe some major global operator will buy the spectrum in 2009-2010?

    Regardless, WiMAX nationwide footprint is now a “pipe dream” and with HSDPA getting foothold with AT&T and CDMA/WCDMA operators looking to LTE commercial services in 2011-2012, the business case for mobile WiMAX has indeed failed.

    MobileInsider (Twitter)

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  9. Any system that has towers far from the user faces issues of the signal needing to go though glass/walls or bounce between buildings, which reduces the actual data rates. As a result, Femtocells will be needed for LTE to reach acceptable speeds and capacity. The other option is a more integrated data transfer from the WiFi network to LTE. WiMax has a huge issue with the CPE/user unit. In old days, users had laptops, but now increasingly they have Internet mobile devices such as the iPhone/Blackberry that support 3G/WiFi and in the future 4G/WiFi. Wimax has nothing to offer there, and is destined to remain a local loop access technology in rural and developing markets as well as a backhaul technology.