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WiMAX Forum runs up white flag, concedes 4G battle to LTE

'What, were those guys still around?' asks world

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The WiMAX forum, on the losing side in the race to 4G, has given up on WiMAX 2.0 and is instead promoting integration with LTE - or "the competition" as it used to be known.

Not that one would guess that from the press release, which talks a lot about "harmonization" and "coexistence" with WiMAX's now dominant competitor, but speaking at 4G World the Forum's president Declan Byre explained that the standard will now be expanded to incorporate the competition. He maintained that this would not "open the floodgates for migrations from WiMAX" - presumably because said gates became shattered ruins years ago.

WiMAX had a first-mover advantage on LTE. Recognised early by the ITU as a "4G" standard, it was being deployed and used well before the LTE specification was written, but mainly in immobile form as back-up connectivity to companies around New York and elsewhere.

The mobile version was heavily backed by the South Korean government, and in the US Clearwire saw a marketing advantage in being the only 4G player in town and invested heavily in WiMAX infrastructure: infrastructure it's now migrating away from as fast as it can flick the switches.

But the network operators never liked WiMAX. Ofcom, the UK regulator, has been trying to auction off 2.6GHz (a preferred WiMAX band) since 2008, but T-Mobile and O2 tied that process into so many legal knots that it's still lying fallow and up for auction next year, by which time it will never see a WiMAX signal.

Intel backed it heavily, promising to make the technology part of Centrino branding and embed it in laptops, but Qualcomm was more interested in (and owned more IP in) LTE, and had the ear of the mobile operators.

WiMAX doesn't require the paired spectrum that phone networks use, so was more flexible than existing technologies. 2G, 3G and LTE all use separate frequencies for sending and receiving, which is expensive both in kit and spectrum, but that's how the telecom engineers like things - one "wire" for each direction. In these days of asynchronous communications that makes no sense at all, as the upward band is empty most of the time, so WiMAX seemed a better technology.

But LTE has been extended to offer the same thing, with TD-LTE which (like WiMAX) switches between sending and receiving in the same band: like a walkie-talkie push-to-talk user shouting "over" only much, much, faster. With TD-LTE growing in popularity, and able to slip into single bands, the only advantage WiMAX had left is gone and the only option for the Forum was to embrace the competition or disappear entirely.

The idea is to provide dual-function base stations, which can do both WiMAX and TD-LTE at the same time. This is something WiMAX flagships such has Clearwire and Russia's Yota are already doing but WiMAX Advanced (completed this year, ratified early next, as Rethink Wireless explains) will allow that in a standardised fashion.

From here that looks like a migration strategy at best, and while WiMAX may live on in some vertical markets the battle for 4G was over some time ago - as even the WiMAX Forum is now admitting. ®

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