LTE Jumps Ahead in the Race to 4G

The awkwardly named Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology is pulling ahead in the race for the 4G wireless networks. If carrier plans are any indication, Ultra Mobile Broadband, the upgrade technology for CDMA networks, is quickly becoming a non-factor. Even WiMAX, which was at one point seen as offering significant cost and time advantages, has started to lose out to LTE.

Since so many industry insiders have started talking about the inevitability of LTE over everything else, I have started to keep tabs on different carriers and their 4G plans. Here are some notables that have made their LTE plans public.

This is not a complete list so much as a directional indicator. (If you have any carriers you want to see on this list, please send me an email.) China and India, the big gorillas on Planet Mobile, have yet to decide their 3G/4G destiny and so remain an X-factor. (More on India down below.)

As more carriers opt for LTE, the equipment makers can start planning for scale and thus bring down the cap-ex costs for these carriers. Lower pricing can have a domino effect, so we could see smaller carriers start to opt for LTE as well. Companies on the equipment side are already making LTE plans.

At the CTIA show in Las Vegas, which wrapped up last week, there were a couple of significant announcements:

  • Chinese equipment maker Huawei Technologies said it will have its 700 MHz products ready for launch in the first quarter of 2009, around the time the carriers can start claiming the wireless spectrum they bought. These offerings include UMTS, CDMA and LTE devices.
  • Ericsson, which is now a dominant wireless infrastructure equipment provider, announced its 700 MHz plans with its new M700 mobile platform, an LTE-capable platform with peak data rates of up to 100Mbps in the downlink and up to 50Mbps in the uplink.

Again, this is not a complete list. (If you want us to include you in future 700 MHz/LTE posts, please drop us a link or short informational blurb via our contact form.)

Our favorite wireless data analyst, Chetan Sharma, did the rounds at CTIA and his conclusion about LTE concurred with our reporting. “Without a doubt the operator community is rallying behind LTE, and there might be an opportunity to finally converge to a single standard,” he says.

Sharma points out that single standards, while nice and dandy, will soon become a thing of the past thanks to “advances in silicon” that now make it possible “to integrate multiple radios” on single chip. Of course, the potential of software-defined radios are finally beginning to be realized as well; Huawei, for example, will be using SDRs in its 700 MHz gear.

So what about WiMAX? Well in the U.S., things aren’t looking so good. Sprint’s Xohm Network has hit some snags and Clearwire is riding rough seas. A rescue in the form of a new, megabillion-dollar funding for a new WiMAX operator might emerge, but we’ll have to wait and see.

As Sharma notes, “WiMAX has forced acceleration of the LTE standardization process but is starting to lose its time (and cost) advantage.” From what I have been able to learn, WiMAX is the technology of choice in the emerging telecom economies. In India for instance, Tata and Reliance, two giant telecom operators, are spending a ton of cash on WiMAX, as is the incumbent Indian incumbent, BSNL.

Charlie Martin, CTO of wireless for Huawei, in an interview with Fierce Broadband Wireless, said, “We view WiMAX as different from CDMA and LTE in terms of the fact that WiMAX is a good alternative for emerging markets and alternative operators.” If there is one company that knows emerging markets, it is Huawei, so I give Martin’s comments a lot of credence.

Note: I am starting to keep close tabs on all mobile web/wireless broadband developments and will be keeping you posted in coming weeks and months. I am looking to come up with a matrix of winners and losers – from chipmakers to device makers to carriers — from all these new wireless evolutions. If you want to help me with that, drop me a note with your thoughts and suggestions. Or send me your email address so I can add you to an ever-changing collaboration using Google Docs.

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