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Infineon unleashes 4G chip

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German chipmaker Infineon Technologies is sampling a new multi-standard transceiver chip sure to heat up the ongoing 4G contest between LTE and WiMAX.

Thanks to a push from companies like Intel, Sprint, Clearwire, Google, and others, the WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) standard has already hit the airwaves. But Infineon's new SMARTi LU chip supports LTE (Long-Term Evolution), the still-incubating standard backed by AT&T, Verizon, Ericsson, NTT DoCoMo, and others. According to Infineon, when the chip is incorporated into mobile devices, it will support speeds of "up to 150 Mbps downlink, 50 Mbps uplink."

While these speeds may sound impressive, remember that accurate estimates of wireless-connectivity speeds are just that: estimates. Variables include the distance from a transmission tower, whether and how fast the receiver is moving, and other factors.

That said, whether based on WiMAX or LTE, 4G devices will be noticeably faster than 3G devices. Possibly up to one hundred times as fast, according to some estimates. Your mileage may - will - vary.

Touted by Infineon VP Stefan Wolff as "the world’s first single chip 2G/3G/LTE RF transceiver," the SMARTi LU supports not only LTE FDD class 4, but an additional alphabet soup of standards, including HSPA+, HSPA, WCDMA and GSM/GPRS/EDGE.

The SMARTi LU's 2G/3G/4G interoperability is key, seeing as how it will be years until telecoms upgrade to LTE - or its rival WiMAX - throughout the covered world. The upgrade will be expensive. Very expensive.

Last year, for example, when Sprint and Clearwire merged their WiMAX efforts, Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner, and Bright House Networks agreed to invest $3.2bn in the new combined company.

And that was just a drop in the 4G bucket. So far, Clearwire WiMAX has debuted in just two American cities.

Last week, ABI Research opined that "by 2013 operators will spend over $8.6 billion on LTE base station infrastructure alone" - and that doesn't include planned LTE investments by China Mobile, which are sure to be vast.

One year ago, analysts at WiMAXDay projected that $30bn would be spent on WiMAX development in 2008 alone - but during the year the growing Meltdown caused companies such as Alcatel-Lucent to cut back on WiMAX spending. Nortel did the same - but their recent bankruptcy filing may make that move moot.

And so the announcement of Infineon's SMARTi LU comes at an interesting time, when telecoms are tightening their belts, battening down their hatches, keeping their powder dry, and otherwise cliché-ing themselves into investment stasis.

It's an open question as to who will loosen their wallets first, LTE or WiMAX supporters. Perhaps the availability of a hot new chip will give the LTE camp a boost.

But no matter what proponents of either camp may say, we're a long way from a decision in the LTE versus WiMAX smackdown. Even after factoring in his company's pro-WiMAX prejudice, we tend to agree with an Intel rep with the marvelous name of Tolis Papathanassiou who predicted at last year's Intel Developer Forum that WiMAX and LTE would soon have comparable user bases. Papathanassiou's estimate was approximately 100 million worldwide subscribers apiece by 2015.

That number may be high if the Meldown keeps melting investment capital - or low if the ship of commerce rights itself sooner rather than later. But the LTE/WiMAX duel will continue for some years to come.

Even though the SMARTi LU does appear to be one fine chip. ®

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