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WiMax, LTE-Advnaced. Does it really matter? Featured

by on05 August 2010 2531 times

evo4gRecently there was an announcement that Intel is pulling out of WiMax in Taiwan.  Now, this is pretty big news as Intel was one of the major proponents of WiMax and was in alliance with more than a few companies to see this project to its completion. The Taiwanese are not happy about this and are now there are rumblings that they are thinking of heading over to ARM to help them complete what they started. But those are just rumors at this stage of the game. After all Intel has not said they will not live up to their side of the deal ($500 Million towards building a WiMax network) they have only closed their offices in Taiwan. There are, however, indications that they are indeed getting ready to drop WiMax. Less than a month ago they released Clearwire from their exclusivity agreement. This agreement would have kept Clearwire tethered to WiMax until 2011. This is good news really as it now allows Clearwire (the provider of 4G service to Sprint in the US) to look into other options for rolling out their 4G service.
But why would Intel do this? The answer is an easy one; the recent settlement with the FTC. In fact if you look back at this one the writing has been on the wall for some time.

In the mid-late 1990s the FTC filed an anticompetitive complaint against Intel at the urging of AMD. This complaint was based on the Intel’s many deals and agreements that kept AMD firmly locked out of many of the large OEMs. As soon as the complaint was public we started to hear of meetings between AMD and many of these same OEMs. One of the biggest shockers was the meeting between AMD executives and Michael Dell. At first the net said the meeting was all rumor and speculation. It was a PR stunt; you know the type of thing. Well as it turned out it was the leading move by AMD to get into the lucrative OEM and VAR market. The meeting was real and it resulted in a deal with Dell that had both positive and negative consequences for AMD.  The thing was that the complaint was not settled yet. All of Intel’s deals were still in place. Why would Dell risk this? This is another simple answer. How would it look to the FTC if Intel was caught enforcing a deal for which the FTC was investigating them? Not very good I can tell you. Intel’s hands were tied. AMD knew this and so did Dell and other OEMs. The floodgates were not open, but the water was moving again for AMD.

The same thing was happening as soon as this round of complaint was filed. Both Clearwire and Sprint were seen to be evaluating LTE-Advanced (Long Term Evolution) Hardware early last year (March). This was extremely odd given the existing agreements both of them have. Then I thought back to the last FTC complaint and the Dell deal. At that point it made sense. Clearwire and Sprint know that while WiMax is available now and does offer excellent speeds (4-5Mb/s Vs. 768Kb/s) it is not a long term solution. It is also becoming much more expensive and manpower intensive to get up and running. They know they have to look to LTE-Advanced for a long term solution. So back at the beginning of the FTC complaint they must have begun discussions with Intel to get out of the deal. Intel, for their part, seeing Clearwire (one of the major partners in WiMax) leaving the field must also know that they will not have much support moving forward for this protocol. To that end, it looks like they are closing up shop on this project globally.

Does this mean that everyone that has bought a Sprint 4G phone is now out of luck? Well, not really. When the LTE-Advanced and WiMax protocols were first proposed they required different hardware to operate. That meant completely different radios, antennas pretty much everything. However, with WiMax’s 802.16m protocol ratified the still evolving LTE-Advanced specification is moving more and more towards being able to operate on similar hardware. There were recent announcements from one LTE hardware manufacturer that they had built and tested hardware that was capable of running both of these protocols exists. It all depends on the software (more like Firmware) used. You see both LTE and WiMax use IP based OFMD (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) and in most cases MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) this is a standard also in use by most of your current wireless N products.  It is a method for breaking up the radio data into different streams for faster transmission. The speed comes from the number of antennas available and the MCS (Modulation and Coding Scheme) used. With both WiMax and LTE-Advanced they are going to use a very similar setup.  But there are differences. WiMax is an Open standard ratified by the IEEE council. LTE-Advanced is a closed and proprietary source that is controlled by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project).  While normally this means you are screwed if you own one device or the other, in this case it does not. You see as with PicoChip manufactures can buy license rights to LTE-Advanced and then still utilize the open 802.16m standard in their devices. After all as PicoChip stated “We can build a card with the same hardware and run either WiMax or LTE” PicoChip likened the WiMax/LTE-Advanced gear to being “just like a PC that can run either OpenOffice or MS Office,”.  This also appears to be the same hardware that Sprint/Clearwire are currently evaluating for their WiMax networks which seems very logical; they can continue with WiMax and when they need to switch over to LTE with little more than a software change.

Now while this is great news for the base stations that Sprint/Clearwire is using; what does it mean for the handsets? Well it seems that most handsets are also primarily software based. It is entirely possible (although not confirmed yet) that a software update will allow the LTE access on these phones. We are trying to contact both HTC and Sprint to confirm this but have not received a reply as of this writing.

So it seems that it is indeed possible that the chapter on WiMax is coming to a close, but not any time soon. We see Sprint/Clearwire continuing with the WiMax roll out while planning for a possible future with LTE-Advanced. It is also important to note the speeds of the two 4G standards. Both LTE-Advanced and WiMax 802.16m are capable of a theoretical down speed of 100Mbps with upload speeds of around 50Mbps (even though the 802.16m spec calls for 1Gb/s fixed speeds). This makes them almost identical in terms of theoretical performance.  Now we also come to an issue of frequency will both standards run in the same range? As it happens WiMax can range from 2GHz-66GHz (and may also use the newly freed 700MHz range) while LTE-Advanced has not decided on a standard just yet it can also run in these ranges.  So we see that these two competing standards are not far apart at all (One analyst described them as siblings).  

I suppose we will know for sure in late 2011 when LTE begins its roll-out in the US but it is looking like these two competing technologies  are close enough to each other than switching between them “on-the-fly”  would not be impossible. The only obstacle we see at this point is whether or not the handsets can handle the switch, but the evidence seems to indicate that they will be able to.

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