"It's the next step up in mobile broadband," says Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group
. "If you look at 2G and 3G, it was all defined on [data] speed. It's hard to say [802.16e] doesn't achieve the same objective, at least from the user perspective - even if, long term, it's not the industry standard."
Ultimately it comes down to a semantic argument. "Perception," says David Robinson, vice president of new business planning at Rogers Wireless
, a national carrier in Canada, "is reality."
In other words, if people call something 4G long enough, it ends up being
4G. At least by some definitions.
Our definition? We think it would be useful to think of today's WiMAX as "next-gen," while reserving "4G" to describe what the ITU will define.
That process is underway. It's expected the ITU will next year choose two standards - just as it chose two competing 3G standards.
The principal 4G contenders?
A beefed up WiMAX standard - 802.16m - currently being developed by the American-based, but international, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which also developed 802.16e and Wi-Fi.
LTE (Long Term Evolution), being developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the mainly European-based, but international, association of telecom associations that defined Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), the current GSM-based 3G mobile standard.
Despite the fact that neither standards body has submitted a 4G proposal to the ITU yet, the battle lines among vendors and operators are forming.
For GSM operators, the logical progression is to LTE and it is expected that virtually all will choose it. Some have already announced they will, including Verizon
in the U.S., Vodaphone
in the UK and China Telecom
Verizon declined further comment for this article because its development team is too busy "working through LTE strategies for 4G," a spokesperson said. It also didn't want to comment at such an early stage with the market evolving so rapidly.
For CDMA carriers, the evolution to either of the likely 4G standards will be a slightly bigger challenge.
They could, like Sprint, jump on the WiMAX bandwagon and operate parallel 802.16e and CDMA-based 3G networks until they can eventually upgrade to a true 4G WiMAX technology. Some smaller carriers have announced they will go this route.
Most major CDMA operators, however, at least in North America, are expected to bite the bullet and choose LTE as the lesser of two evils, the one that at least has a similar legacy to their current technology.
Some of those, such as Bell Mobility in Canada, will take the interim step of building a GSM-based HSPA (High-speed Packet Access) data network on top of their existing CDMA/EVDO infrastructures. Others will go directly to LTE - when it becomes available.
"The market," Redman sums up, "is moving toward LTE over WiMAX. WiMAX will not dominate. LTE is considered a more traditional evolutionary path for existing 3G operators. WiMAX is considered something new, and many don't want to take a risk with it."
Another reason for LTE's dominance: while some mobile network equipment suppliers such as Nortel
are backing both WiMAX and LTE, the dominant infrastructure supplier, Ericsson
, is only
backing LTE, Redman points out.
Kerravala says, "What we're likely to see is LTE being much more widely deployed in developed markets because of the installed base [of CDMA and GSM infrastructure], but WiMAX prevailing in emerging markets, such as India."