WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+: who cares who wins?

"We must stop the confusion about which technology is going to win; it achieves nothing positive and risks damage to the entire industry."

James Middleton

June 2, 2009

6 Min Read
WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+: who cares who wins?
Who cares who wins the 4G cup?

“We must stop the confusion about which technology is going to win; it achieves nothing positive and risks damage to the entire industry.”

Anyone among the curious band of people who track articles about the status of mobile broadband (and the chances are that you are one of them) will have noticed an interesting trend over the past 18 months: the temperature of the debate about the technology most likely to succeed is rising rapidly. Increasingly polarised articles are published on a daily basis, each arguing that Long Term Evolution (LTE) is the 4G technology of choice, or that WiMAX is racing ahead, or that it’s best to stick with good old 3GPP because HSPA+ is going to beat both of them. It remains surprising that their articles invite us, their readers, to focus slavishly on the question “WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+: which one will win?”

The question that we should ask of the authors is “Who cares who wins?” The torrent of propaganda washes over the essence of mobile broadband and puts sustained growth in the mobile industry at risk. By generating fear, uncertainty and doubt, the mobile broadband “battle” diverts attention away from the critical issues that will determine the success or failure of these evolving technologies.  The traditional weapon of the partisan author is the mighty “Mbps”; each wields their peak data rates to savage their opponents.

In the HSPA+ camp, authors fire out theoretical peak data rates of 42Mbps DL and 23 Mbps UL. The WiMAX forces respond with theoretical peak data rates of 75Mbps DL and 30Mbps UL. LTE joins the fray by unleashing its theoretical peak data rates of 300Mbps DL and 75 Mbps UL. All hell breaks loose, or so it would appear. Were it not for the inclusion of the word “theoretical”, we could all go home to sleep soundly and wake refreshed, safe in the knowledge that might is right. The reality is very different.

Sprint has stated that it intends to deliver services at between 2 and 4 Mbps to its customers with Mobile WiMAX. In the real world, HSPA+ and LTE are likely to give their users single digit Mbps download speeds.  Away from the theoretical peak data rates, the reality is that the technologies will be comparable with each other, at least in the experience of the user. These data rates, from a user’s perspective, are a great improvement on what you will see while sitting at home on your WiFi or surfing the web while on a train. The problem is that the message being put out to the wider population has the same annoying ringtone as those wild claims that were made about 3G and the new world order that it would usher in. Can you remember the allure of video calls? Can you remember the last time you actually saw someone making a video call?

3G has transformed the way that people think about and use their mobile phones, but not in the way that they were told to expect. In the case of 3G, mismanagement of customer expectations put our industry back years. We cannot afford to repeat this mistake with mobile broadband. Disappointed customers spend less money because they don’t value their experience as highly as they had been led to expect by advertisers.  Disappointed customers share their experience with friends and family, who delay buying into the mobile broadband world.  What we all want are ecstatic customers who can’t help but show off their device. We need to produce a ‘Wow’ factor that generates momentum in the market.

Every pundit has a pet theory about the likely deployment of mobile broadband technologies. One will claim that HSPA+ might delay the deployment of LTE. Another will posit that WiMAX might be adopted, predominantly, in the laptop or netbook market. A third will insist that LTE could replace large swathes of legacy technologies.  These scenarios might happen, but they might not, too.

More likely, but less stirring, is the prediction that they are all coming, they’ll be rolled out to hundreds of millions of subscribers and, within five years, will be widespread. We must stop the confusion about which technology is going to win; it achieves nothing positive and risks damage to the entire industry.

Confusion unsettles investors, who move to other markets and starve us of the R&D funds needed to deliver mobile broadband. At street level, confusion leads early adopters to hold off making commitments to the new wave of technology while they “wait it out” to ensure they don’t buy a Betamax instead of a VHS.  Where we should focus, urgently, is on the two topics that demand open discussion and debate. First, are we taking the delivery of a winning user experience seriously? Secondly, are we making plans to cope with the data tidal wave that will follow a successful launch?

The first topic concerns delivery to the end user of a seamless application experience that successfully converts the improved data rates to improvements on their device. This can mean anything from getting LAN-like speeds for faster email downloads through to slick, content-rich and location-aware applications. As we launch mobile broadband technologies, we must ensure that new applications and capabilities are robust and stable. More effort must be spent developing and testing applications so that the end user is blown away by their performance.

The second topic, the tidal wave of data, should force us to be realistic about the strain placed on core networks by an exponential increase in data traffic. We have seen 10x increases in traffic since smartphones began to boom. Mobile device makers, network equipment manufacturers and application developers must accept that there will be capacity shortages in the short term and, in response, must design, build and test applications rigorously. We need applications with realistic data throughput requirements and the ability to catch data greedy applications before they reach the network.

In Anite, we see the demands placed on test equipment by mobile broadband technologies at first hand. More than testing the technical integrity of the protocol stack and its conformance to the core specifications, we produce new tools that test applications and simulate the effects of anticipated capacity bottlenecks. Responding to the increased demand for mobile applications, we’re developing test coverage that measures applications at the end-user level. Unfortunately, not everyone is thinking that far ahead. Applications that should be “Wow”, in theory, may end up producing little more than a murmur of disappointment in the real world.

So, for the sake of our long-term prospects, let’s stop this nonsense about how one technology trounces another. Important people, the end users, simply do not care.  WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+ will all be widely deployed. As an industry, our energy needs to be focused on delivering services and applications that exceed the customer expectations.  Rather than fighting, we should be learning from each other’s experiences.  If we do that, our customers will reward us with growing demand. If we all get sustained growth, then don’t we all win..?

Dominic Rowles is business unit director at test and measurement firm Anite

About the Author(s)

James Middleton

James Middleton is managing editor of telecoms.com | Follow him @telecomsjames

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