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TD-LTE sounds death knell for WiMAX

It tolls for thee. Or does it?

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Opinion "The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Was it Mark Twain who said that, or WiMAX? News of the poor 4G technology's imminent death have surfaced again with some vigour, with blame squarely aimed at the growing support for the unpaired flavour of LTE - known as TD-LTE - which offers holders of unpaired spectrum a ticket into the LTE ballgame.

The events which have brought relatives and loved-ones back to WiMAX's deathbed started last summer when Bill Morrow, Clearwire CEO, revealed that the company was not ideological about WiMAX and flipping the network over to LTE was a mere software upgrade exercise. As Derek Kessler over at precentral.net pointed out at the time, if Clearwire were on Facebook, its relationship status with WiMAX abruptly changed to "It's Complicated" - Facebook speak for "I'm seeing other people".

Morrow's more recent comments have emphasised this new relationship status, telling Cnet that a revised agreement with Intel allows Clearwire to dump WiMAX with as little as 30 days notice, although "We won't be deploying LTE anytime soon and definitely not before 2012."

Loss of support from such a big operator would be a blow to WiMAX, but at least Clearwire's still onboard. But hop over to Russia and the same cannot be said for Yota, one of the world's largest WiMAX operators serving more than 500,000 mobile internet customers across the country.

Last month, Yota announced that it will cover the next 15 cities on its roll-out list with LTE instead of WiMAX. It will also cover existing markets in Moscow and St. Petersburg with LTE by the end of 2011. Yota will spend $100 million to roll-out LTE in five Russian cities this year, with total investment estimated at up to $2 billion. This is the mother of all defections.

The rise of the TD-LTE standard seems to be at the root of both Clearwire's relationship update and Yota's defection. Back in the day, operators' attraction to WiMAX, particular new market entrant operators, was its ability to work in unpaired spectrum. Unpaired spectrum tends to be cheaper and more readily available, two factors which underpin the success of any wireless service business model.

Conversely, LTE had been standardised requiring paired spectrum, following in the evolutionary footsteps of its paired spectrum predecessors - GSM and UMTS. However, with pressure from influential unpaired spectrum holders like China Mobile, a TDD version of LTE has been pushed out. Although standardisation was initiated two years later than paired LTE (FDD LTE), it has more or less caught up and reached commercial viability.

While most GSM operators in Asia, Europe and North America will likely upgrade along the FDD path with the paired spectrum they own, TD-LTE will predominantly be found in China, India and Russia. These huge markets will give LTE massive economies of scale which WiMAX will struggle to compete with.

According to a report just out by WiseHarbor Research, WiMAX will reach its peak in 2015 and fall away thereafter as it makes way for LTE. "TD-LTE will be fatal to WiMAX," Keith Mallinson at WiseHarbor said.

Copyright © 2010, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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