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The Great WiMax Split

One thing was obvious at the CTIA show in Florida last week, there's a major split emerging in the industry about WiMax and the right path to 4G.

On one hand, operators such as Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and vendors like Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Nortel Networks Ltd. , and others are fairly gung-ho about the technology. Sprint especially sees mobile WiMax as a way to deliver wireless broadband relatively cheaply and provide subscribers with a lot of new types of devices and services over these networks. (See CTIA: West Talks WiMax.)

But some are not so optimistic. AT&T executive Mark Collins, VP for long-term products and services planning, told LRTV that "WiMax is not a mature technology." AT&T is clearly betting that 3G technologies such as UMTS/HSDPA (Universal Mobile Telephone System/High Speed Downlink Packet Access) are going to serve them for delivering mobile broadband for the next couple of years.

And a couple of weeks ago Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), and others are lined up to shoot WiMax down. Last week Ericsson announced that it was getting out of in-house WiMax R&D to focus on long-term evolution (LTE) tech for cellular, which is seen as a path to 4G by some carriers. Qualcomm is pushing CDMA EV-DO Revisions B and C as its new fast things. (See Ericsson Pulls WiMax Plug and Qualcomm Unveils Roadmap.)

Sprint thinks that mobile WiMax will allow it to take the tech lead in the U.S. since AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) (née Cingular) and Verizon Wireless don't have the huge swathe of spectrum that it does to deploy WiMax. AT&T and Verizon haven't officially announced what comes after 3G for them.

The WiMax split doesn't really affect users yet. Sprint isn't going to have a serious WiMax footprint before 2008, and LTE isn't expected on the scene much before the end of the decade.

But it's clear that a classic industry divide is emerging, where the real losers could turn out to be users. It is the GSM versus CDMA battle all over again. This could stimulate more competition between carriers and vendors to deliver better devices and services over the separate platforms, but it will definitely make it harder for users to roam between networks and use their phones in different countries.

In fact the forthcoming "4G" split will probably mean that the operator's existing networks can look forward to a long and happy life since 2G and 3G they will be the fallback that ensures that users can get connected wherever they are.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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