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WiMAX takes its place in the mobile broadband patchwork
Motorola takes the lead
Much of the 4G picture remains cloudy, but one thing is clear – the next generation of wireless networks will be based on the OFDMA/MIMO/IP combination shared by the most prominent contenders, LTE and Mobile WiMAX.
For a good few years, these technologies will complement, rather than replace, existing systems like EDGE, HSPA, EV-DO and wireline networks, all of which will continue to be expanded.
This means that the best positioned vendors will be those that can help operators integrate various networks. For all its tribulations, Motorola is taking a clear lead.
The infrastructure supplier will talk up two key announcements at last week's CTIA conference in Las Vegas – a common platform for LTE and WiMAX, and hand-off between LTE and EV-DO. The former will take advantage of the many similarities between the two leading OFDMA technologies, with Motorola citing development overlap of up to 80 per cent.
The company has announced software configurable modem technology, and senior vice president Fred Wright said in a statement: "We're building upon our OFDM expertise and early success in WiMAX 802.16e as we develop our LTE product solutions. We can reuse about 75 per cent of the basic application software and platform technology we developed for WiMAX in our LTE products, thereby advancing our development efforts.
"For example, the new common wireless broadband platform is expected to be commercially deployed in WiMAX networks in 2008, followed by the LTE application available by late 2009, giving us the advantage of deploying LTE technology on a field proven platform."
A combined platform is also the goal of Nortel and other base station makers that have eschewed a religious stance on next generation systems, and they hope that the ability to target the whole operator base with a unified architecture will deliver them faster 4G uptake, greater economies, and give them an edge over market leader Ericsson, which is sticking to LTE only. Nokia Siemens Networks is looking to support both standards in its Flexi Base Station flagship, although it is also working on a fully unified platform for future release.
Motorola's second breakthrough is to demonstrate hand-off between EV-DO networks and LTE, which will be important in targeting what should be low hanging fruit for the CDMA infrastructure makers – operators migrating from CDMA to LTE, as it looks increasingly unlikely that Qualcomm's own OFDMA/MIMO design, Ultra Mobile Broadband (formerly EV-DO Rev C) will ever come to market.
Most immediately, CDMA giant Verizon Wireless plans to start trialling LTE late this year, with a view to a 4G strategy that is harmonised with its co-parent Vodafone. The largest operator by revenues will be a keen target for all the vendors, but the CDMA makers will be particularly eager to get into this UMTS stronghold, using Verizon as the back door.
The Lucent side of AlcaLu and Nortel are the other main contenders in this sector, with ZTE also a possible challenger, given its rapid growth and its CDMA presence in emerging markets.