WiMax isn't taking the challenge from LTE lying down.
Faced with a growing number of operators planning to launch 4G LTE services over the next year, WiMax's creators at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and its industry boosters are moving aggressively to upgrade the mobile data standard in time for a commercial launch in the US as early as 2012.
The IEEE has been developing the new standard, known as 802.16m and commonly referred to as "WiMax 2," since 2006. If all goes according to plan, the IEEE should finish work on the standard by this coming September. Meanwhile the WiMax Forum industry group is working on an 802.16m certification profile that it hopes to have ready to go by the time the IEEE finishes its work later this year.
Additionally, last month a group of industry heavyweights including Intel, Motorola and Samsung announced a new initiative to accelerate interoperability of 802.16m, with the goal of jointly testing 4G applications over WiMax 2 networks and testing for early network level interoperability.
802.16m will be significantly faster than its predecessor. WiMax Forum Vice President Mohammad Shakouri has said the goal is for the new WiMax standard to deliver average downlink speeds of more than 100Mbps to users. In contrast, Sprint's initial Xohm WiMax offering, which debuted commercially in 2008, delivered downlink speeds ranging between 3.7M to 5Mbps. But while 802.16m will give WiMax a major speed boost, don't expect it to propagate any further than the current WiMax technology that covers around 31 square miles per access point.
802.16m will also be backward compatible with 802.16e, the WiMax standard currently used by operators in the United States. This means that when U.S. ISP Clearwire upgrades to the new standard it will be able to do so at a relatively low cost and with minimal disruption.
Although WiMax 2 may be ready to roll out next year, don't expect to see it deployed in the United States until 2012 at the earliest, since Clearwire has said that it is happy to use its current WiMax standard for at least the next couple of years. By the end of this year, Clearwire will have built out a WiMAX network that spans all major US markets and that covers 120 million points of presence.
"Right now we think the WiMax technology we're already using is more than sufficient for the time being," Clearwire Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert told Network World earlier this year. "It's the fastest technology on the market that's here today and that works. So any evaluations we're doing are just evaluations."
Both WiMAX and LTE are hitting the market during a time when Cisco projects that mobile Internet traffic will double every year between now and 2013, when it will total an average of 2.2 million terabytes per month. Cisco predicts that the biggest driver for the traffic increase will come from video, which will account for roughly 64% of all mobile data traffic in 2013. In 2008, video traffic averaged around 13,000 TB per month, or roughly 39% of all mobile traffic. By 2013, video traffic will increase by more than 100 times and will average around 1.3 million TB per month, Cisco projects.
Sanjiv Gupta, a senior technical marketing engineer at Intel, said earlier this year that 802.16m would be a key technology to help mobile operators meet traffic demand in the coming years since it would "offer significantly greater capacity, coverage and performance, and lower latency." So far, however, most US carriers have committed to LTE as their 4G technology of choice, including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. Only Sprint, through its partnership with Clearwire, has supported WiMAX.