News and analysis related to broadband wireless continues to trend upward, quickened in part last month by the approach of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain (Feb. 15-18).

At least three organizations published reports related to wireless broadband, including Cisco, In-Stat and TeleGeography.

Speeds and consumption patterns of the related services are themselves accelerating, as Cisco indicated in its "Visual Networking Index Mobile Data Forecast, 2009-2014."

According to Cisco, annual global mobile data traffic will reach 3.6 exabytes (billion gigabytes) per month or an annual run rate of 40 exabytes by 2014, equating to a 39-fold increase from 2009 to 2014, or a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 108 percent.

Cisco’s research also found:

  • Global mobile data traffic has increased by 160 percent over the past year to 90 petabytes per month, or the equivalent of 23 million DVDs.

  • Global mobile data traffic today is growing 2.4 times faster than global fixed broadband data traffic.

  • By 2014, more than 400 million of the world’s Internet users could access the network solely through a mobile connection.

  • The Middle East and Africa are expected to have the highest regional mobile data traffic growth rate, with a CAGR of 133 percent over the forecast period.

LTE vs. WiMAX?

With demand for wireless data growing so quickly, it is no wonder infrastructure builders are debating the best build-out strategies.

In-Stat’s report "The Road to LTE Worldwide: Is WiMAX Really the Enemy?" concluded that Long Term Evolution (LTE) has emerged as the clear choice for next generation wireless technology.

LTE, however, has some issues. "These include lack of spectrum, signal-to-noise ratio, and non-established patent and royalty pool," wrote In-Stat Principal Analyst Allen Nogee. "It’s clear that the shift toward 4G LTE will be gradual and protracted."

Other findings from the In-Stat report include:

  • While LTE will ultimately become the 4G standard of choice, Mobile WiMAX is much more mature in deployment and has a distinct niche. Even by 2013, Mobile WiMAX will have more than five times as many global subscribers as LTE.

  • WiMAX deployments have given chipset manufacturers, device manufacturers, and infrastructure suppliers real-world experience.

  • External clients such as network cards and USB dongles will be the first LTE subscriber devices sold. LTE mobile handsets will not start shipping in major volumes until 2012.

In fact, in December 2009, TeliaSonera became the first operator to offer limited LTE services, providing service in Stockholm, Sweden and Oslo, Norway. And the operator only provided USB modems (from Samsung), no mobile handsets.

In an interview, Nogee said that existing cellular networks are so wide and expansive, it will be difficult for companies like Clearwire to compete, building a new WiMAX standalone network. He predicts WiMAX will become a niche technology.

A spokesperson for Clearwire said, "It’s hard to predict the future with any technology."

But perhaps Clearwire management has begun to realize its technology will need to connect with LTE for the global reach consumers expect.

The spokesperson said: "Both WiMAX and LTE share about 85 percent of the same DNA and many RAN (radio access network) vendors have embarked on designing a common RAN platform to flexibly support both WiMAX and LTE."

"As for devices, given the similarities… it would be feasible in the long term to build devices and appliances that have both LTE and WiMAX capability embedded within them, just as some cell phones sold today can operate on both GSM and CDMA networks," added the spokesperson.

Given the 1,000-foot perspective that’s beginning to emerge, Cox Communications may be ahead of the game.

In December, Cox announced it was launching CDMA wireless phone and mobile high speed Internet services in three test markets: Hampton Roads, VA; Omaha, NE; and Orange County, CA.

Then in January, Cox announced it had successfully completed tests of voice calling and high definition (HD) video streaming over LTE technology in Phoenix and San Diego.

The LTE trials utilized the AWS and 700 MHz spectrum that Cox acquired at Federal Communication Commission auctions in 2006 and 2008.

While LTE isn’t built out yet, Cox can offer wireless services via its CDMA infrastructure with the ability to hop onto others’ networks for coverage.

"At this time, 3G is closest to mass acceptance and provides a very robust data experience," Jill Ullman, a spokeswoman for Cox said. "In the long run, however, we believe LTE is the best way to build out a 4G network and our LTE trials successfully tested voice and data."

Although Cox seems to be on track from a technical perspective, Nogee is skeptical about marketing because it may be difficult to lure consumers away from the big, familiar cellular players.

WiMAX niche?

As far as WiMAX being a niche technology, there is some support for that assertion, according to new research from TeleGeography’s 4G Research Service.

TeleGeography’s data shows that there were more than 600 WiMAX networks, either live or at the planning/deployment stage by the end of 2009, which significantly exceeds HSPA and LTE deployments.

However, only a relatively small number of those WiMAX systems offer wide coverage areas. Most offer only local or regional service.

Experts believe WiMAX is especially poised to fill the demand for wireless broadband access in developing counties and in rural areas of developed markets.

"The answer to the question ‘LTE or WiMAX?’ is both," said Peter Bell, analyst with TeleGeography, in a statement. "LTE and WiMAX both have roles to play, and both technologies will be with us for years to come."

-Linda Hardesty is associate editor, Communications Technology.

Wired and Wireless

By the end of 2009, Comcast was offering High-Speed 2go, a WiMAX-based service in partnership with Clearwire, in more than 9 million of its homes passed.

"We’re looking to significantly expand that by the end of 2010," Steve Burke, Comcast CEO and SVP said during the company’s Q4 and year-end earnings call in February.

Bundled with Comcast’s high-speed wired DOCSIS 3.0 service, the offering appears to be filling an unmet need. Results from Portland, where the service first launched, look promising.

"Roughly 40 percent of the High-Speed 2go customers are new high-speed Internet customers for Comcast," Burke said.

A double-play product could appeal to many high-speed data users. According to results of a survey of U.S. broadband subscribers conducted by In-Stat, more than 25 percent of respondents have a mobile wireless broadband connection in addition to a wired connection.

And just as platforms are emerging that can support WiMAX and LTE, so too another convergence — between WiFi with WiMAX — is driving some product roadmaps. BelAir Network has begun to deploy such access points, and radios from other vendors are in the works. – JT

Wireless Glossary

CDMA: Code Division Multiple Access, a spread-spectrum channel access method used by radio communications technologies.

4G: Refers to the fourth generation of cellular wireless standards which aims to provide ultra broadband data rates; associated with International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) Advanced, as defined by ITU-R.

HSPA: High-Speed Packet Access; a combination of downlink and uplink mobile telephony protocols that expands upon WCDMA. Evolved HSPA (or HSPA+) is defined in 3GPP release 7. (Q4 2007)

LTE: Long Term Evolution; a pre-4G technology (although marketed as a 4G) that enhances UMTS and associated with 3GPP release 8 (Dec 2008)

3G: A family of "third generation" standards for mobile telecommunications defined by the ITU that includes GSM EDGE, UMTS, CDMA, DECT and WiMAX.

3GPP: Third Generation Partnership Project; a collaboration among European, Japanese, Chinese, North American and South Korean telecommunications associations to make 3G phone systems specs.

UMTS: Universal Mobile Telecommunications System; a 3G wireless network system technology (also evolving into 4G) that uses various forms of CDMA; sometimes marketed as 3GSM.

Wi-Fi: Wireless Fidelity; an industry name for a class of wireless local area network (WLAN) technology based on the IEEE 802.11 standard; uses both spread spectrum and OFDM radio technology.

WiMAX: Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access; an industry name for wireless data transmission technology based on the IEEE 802.16 standard.

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