Monday, 15 June 2009

LTE, WiMAX and the end of history

For various reasons that I won't go into I spent a little while on Saturday afternoon sat in a beer garden in Notting Hill discussing the relatively positioning of LTE and WiMAX. Put very simply LTE will eventually win. It has a much more effective upgrade path for GSM/W-CDMA operators and has managed to rope in some of the most prominent 3GPP2/CDMA operators including Verizon Wireless. As a result it has huge benefits of scale which will eventually drive the price down to such a point that WiMAX won't be competitive. The big benefit that WiMAX has is time to market. It's available now and LTE will take a while to reach its full potential, not least because 3GPP operators can sweat their HSPA assets. What's increasingly apparent, however, is that the "4G" (for want of a better term) technology of choice will be LTE. WiMAX will have a niche role to play, predominantly providing DSL replacement services in emerging markets.

Excuse me switching from telecoms to political economics. This all sets me in mind of Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?". As the Berlin Wall fell and liberal democracy (or capitalism, if you prefer) became all-consuming, the age old struggles between different forms of government were, according to Fukuyama, over. This was the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government". Leaving aside how presumptuous this theory is, the idea that a single philosophy can dominate the world mirrors what is occuring in wireless technology.

In both worlds, the ideological wars of the 1980s are over and old enemies have become fast friends. Global homogeneity is all but guaranteed. There are a few outposts of alternative thought, but for the most part LTE (or liberal capitalism) dominates. But, as with political philosophy, the picture isn't quite that simple. There has become an increasing fragmentation in method of implementation. Some hurtle full pelt towards a pure version, while others tinker with hybrid models and China, as ever, does its own thing. LTE has challenges, not least in diversity of frequency allocation, but it has, to all intents and purposes, won.


  1. LTE is on a clear line of descent from GSM - but GSM was not a product of unfettered capitalism. It was a collaborative, state-pronoted, centrally imposed system. For the market-driven, minimally regulated solution, look to the USA, with its inconvenient mixture of 2G and 3G systems - and WiMAX, of course.

  2. Perhaps this is rather too contrived. I wasn't really saying that GSM was a product of capitalism, more that the technology conflicts of the 1990s-2000s will converge on a single standard in the form of LTE in the same way that political economics converges on liberal democracy. Or at least that's the theory.

  3. I didn't interpret your post as saying that GSM was a product of capitalism. However, I was trying to suggest an irony in using LTE as an analogue of capitalim's triumph, given its background in GSM.

    'Liberal democracy' means so many different things that it's hard to be sure what we mean by its triumph. In the USA, plenty of people regard the governments of Sweden, France and the UK as socialist! Is the USA a liberal demoracy? There seems no greater insult than to call someone a liberal over there. A lot depends on whether we're talking about economic liberalism or social liberalism. The two don't always go together.

  4. Very true. There's not much that's liberal about neo-liberalism.

  5. And all the while that WiMAX tries to duke it out with LTE, HSPA(+) will be the eventual winner. Look at the inxhorable growth of GSM while the focus of our industry remains on HSPA.

    For 3GPP operators, there is no more cost effctive path, it's here now and requires only minimal investment in (largly NodeB) HW and SW expansions. The spectrum is secured and is perfectly functional.

    Show me a business case that demonstrates that expanding baseband, and adding carriers (even refreshing nodeBs) will have a lower return than adding WiMAX infrastructure or eNodeBs then converting subs to brand-new multi-mode terminals?