One of the notable things about the 2008 Mobile World Congress was the major splash made by Wimax, a technology that the GSM Association has denounced as a niche technology with virtually no future as the world's cellcos inevitably evolve to LTE. Yet there was the Wimax Forum promoting over 40 stands worth of real equipment and boasting over 200 commercial deployments.
Almost as if by response, the 2009 MWC was all about LTE. Numerous heavy-hitters showcased LTE gear in action during the event, with LTE base stations running live video and other bandwidth-heavy apps. Motorola executives drove a van around Placa Espanya running LTE between the van and its booth via two eNode Bs running raw 8-Mbps MPEG-4 video with no buffering or FEC of any kind. The demo went off without a hitch - the handover from one Node B to another produced a bit of picture breakup, but given this was unbuffered video sharing a link with two laptops running YouTube videos, it wasn't bad.
Real-world conditions, of course, won't be nearly as accommodating, but new results released that week from the LTE/SAE Test Initiative (LSTI), which puts an emphasis on real-world conditions in its testing, were encouraging. The LSTI wrapped up its proof-of-concept phase earlier this year, and all up, LTE is essentially living up to the 3GPP's performance benchmarks for downlink/uplink throughput performance and latency.
Put another way, LTE works. It hasn't been vetted for interoperability yet - that's next on the LSTI's docket -but it works.
That was this year's LTE message. It works as advertised, and it's coming sooner than you thought. This year, actually. Various vendors like Ericsson, Motorola, Huawei, ZTE and Alcatel-Lucent intend to have LTE gear commercially available in the second half of this year. And according to Pyramid Research, a dozen operators are committed to launching commercial LTE services sometime next year, including NTT DoCoMo, TeliaSonera and Verizon. Another 15 operators plan to roll out LTE in 2011-2012.
That would seem to be grim news for Wimax, whose chief selling point has been that LTE is years away from commercial reality and thanks to the rise of smartphones and dongles, demand for "real" mobile Internet needs to be met now. The spectre of LTE just around the corner makes that pitch a little harder to sell.
On the other hand, that presumes the market will only accept one or the other, not both. And the market has already accepted Wimax to some degree. The Wimax Forum says the technology had racked up deployments in almost 140 countries (albeit not all of them fully commercial and many of them as wireless DSL rather than fully mobile offerings) as of April this year. Asia has already seen high-profile launches in Malaysia and Taiwan, and will see another in July this year when UQ Communications - a consortium that includes EV-DO operator KDDI - launches commercial service in Japan, where LTE is expected to go live next year.
Moreover, some doubts remain over just how much of a head start Wimax will ultimately have over LTE - and how much of a difference it will make in any case.