4G skirmishes begin

18 Feb 2008

The great 4G standards race is off and running.

After last week's skirmishes between LTE and mobile Wimax, technology editors are already dusting off the headlines from old CDMA2000/W-CDMA battles.

Superficially, telecom history does seem to be repeating itself"”on one side is the heavyweight GSM/UMTS candidate, supported by just about everybody. On the other is a standard pushed by a single US entity with sporadic backing from across the industry.

Once again, most vendors have their feet in both camps - all except Ericsson, who also led the charge against CDMA all those years ago (until it actually bought Qualcomm's CDMA business).

But the standards contest for 4G is a different ball-game. For one, the technologies are much closer. They are both IP-based with an OFDM radio interface and are in fact 80% identical, according to Daniel Moloney of Motorola.

Second, mobile operators speak with a much stronger voice. A decade ago, vendors dictated the directions of the mobile industry. Today operators expect vendors to meet their needs, not follow technology roadmaps. Carriers want to be able to interoperate with as many other networks as possible. They also want to see vendors maximize scale economies and they don't want to waste time on a standards war.

Third, times are tough. There's not going to be hundreds of billions of dollars to spent on two completely different network systems. It's in the interest of just about everybody to keep the pie as large as possible.

Finally, China's TD-SCDMA camp, which did not exist commercially a decade ago, will be something of a wild card. Chinese vendors need TD-SCDMA to become part of 4G and see Wimax as a threat in emerging markets.

Conclusion: harmonization between the two technologies is not inevitable, or even likely, but don't rule it out.

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