LTE catching Wimax in 4G race

Mike Roberts, Informa Telecoms & Media
17 Jun 2009

Analysis of 4G networks planned, in deployment and in service shows LTE catching mobile Wimax in the race to be the leading next-gen mobile system.

In fact, in Asia Pacific there were 55 LTE networks in these categories compared to 25 mobile Wimax networks in 1Q09, although mobile Wimax had the clear advantage of 12 networks in service compared to zero for LTE, according to Informa Telecoms & Media research. In addition, including fixed Wimax there were 71 total Wimax networks in Asia Pacific in these categories in 1Q09, with 40 of those in service.

Wimax continues to build momentum globally, with 456 Wimax networks worldwide either in service, in deployment or planned at the end of March 2009, a 53% increase from 299 networks in the same categories in March 2008. But the number of operators worldwide planning LTE deployments has also increased sharply in the last year, from a handful in 1Q08 to 119 operators in 1Q09 with LTE networks either planned or in deployment. Another 43 operators have LTE licenses or are positioning for LTE licenses, taking the number of likely LTE networks to 162.

This means LTE networks - albeit all of them are planned or in deployment rather than live - have already passed mobile Wimax 802.16e networks, which stood at 129 in 1Q09. The other 366 Wimax networks were based largely on fixed Wimax 802.16-2004.
Wimax of course has a head-start of several years on LTE, which has given Wimax the distinct advantage of 291 live networks as of 1Q09, with 68 of those based on mobile Wimax, compared to zero for LTE.

Another reason LTE has gained momentum is that it is building on the success of HSPA and EV-DO, which have clear upgrade paths to LTE. The big picture is that HSPA and EV-DO together had more than 180 million subscribers worldwide at end-2008, compared to 3.6 million for Wimax. This translates into cost advantages that Wimax will struggle to overcome, although it is important to note that some Wimax devices have seen significant cost reductions even without scale advantages.

Looking more closely at markets where mobile Wimax and/or fixed Wimax have gone head to head with EV-DO and HSDPA, the results to date make tough reading for Wimax backers. For example, in four key markets with relatively large Wimax launches - Korea, Australia, Malaysia and the US - Wimax only managed to gain 2% of total mobile broadband subscribers by end-08, compared to 58% for EV-DO and 41% for HSPA.

Arguments will continue to rage about the relative technical and other merits of rival mobile broadband systems, but commercial results are what really matter, and the early signs are that HSPA and EV-DO are outperforming Wimax. This builds a strong foundation for LTE, given that it is now clear that most HSPA and EV-DO networks and subscribers will migrate to LTE.

The bottom line is that LTE is increasingly likely to dominate the next-gen mobile broadband market, based on an analysis of operator 4G network deployment plans and current mobile broadband subscribers by technology, but mobile Wimax can still play a significant role. The sooner it moves on from the fight with LTE and focuses on its strengths in the wireless broadband market, the larger that role will be.

Mike Roberts is a principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media - [email protected]

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