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Today there is a feeding frenzy within the WiMAX marketplace. People who have poured money into the technology and networks have proclaimed victory; their 4G service is real while LTE is still in the future.

4G World-NOT!

Friday, September 18, 2009
No, I did not attend 4G World in Chicago, produced by the Yankee Group. I saw no reason to go to a show about 3G technology masquerading as 4G technology, and LTE. Based on reports, including the Wireless Week Show Daily, it seems I made a wise choice.
Today's WiMAX speeds, as advertised by both Sprint and Clearwire, do not begin to be 4G-like. No, 4G won't be 50 Mbps per customer, but it certainly will be a lot faster than 2-3 Mbps down and 1 Mbps (tops) up, which is what Clear and Sprint are offering. Calling WiMAX 4G may fool customers for awhile, but it sets false expectations. At some point, this will come back to haunt those who have chosen to stretch the truth. It would have been better to sell Clear as the first all-IP network, or the first wireless network that resembles the Internet from end-to-end, but they chose instead to call it the first 4G network in the world.


I don't like the hype that has run rampant throughout the wireless industry since its inception: advertising slogans that are not true, technology hyped as the next great thing, coverage advertised as better than it is, devices that don't live up to promises, and most certainly claims that today's version of WiMAX is a 4G technology. I am greatly disappointed that, from all reports, the "4G World Conference" was a blatant pulpit for WiMAX and Clearwire.


Not to bite a hand that feeds me, but 99% of the ads in the Wireless Week Show Dailies were about WiMAX, paid for by the WiMAX community. The program and articles I have read leave no doubt that WiMAX was the core of the conference and LTE, the only real 4G technology, was merely tolerated. I am reminded of several other conferences I have attended over the years.


One of my favorite examples was held in the San Francisco area in the 1980s-or was it the 1990s.time sure flies. In any event, it was shortly after the first pen computing devices were released into the market-big, bulky, heavy devices, with 1-2 hour battery life, screens that were difficult to read (no color, no backlighting), and slow applications. The conference was packed with pen computing companies and wannabes, Microsoft, the company behind the operating system, and more venture capitalists than you could count. At the first night cocktail party, venture types were congratulating each other for their vision in putting money into companies developing these new pen-based devices because they were all going to be rich-not!


Today there is a feeding frenzy within the WiMAX marketplace. People who have poured money into the technology and networks have proclaimed victory; their 4G service is real while LTE is still in the future. I'm sure they were walking around the show floor at 4G World congratulating themselves on their insight and ability to understand that WiMAX will win the day and LTE will be too late to the party.


As a 3G technology with the same speed limitations as the other 3G technologies, there is nothing wrong with WiMAX. It works and it will continue to work. But in the United States, WiMAX has less than 1 million subscribers compared to the other wireless networks with more than 270 million subscribers-most of which pay for voice services, some for data. Voice pays the bills, and VoIP over WiMAX is not really voice, it is merely a substitute for true voice services.


I don't blame the Yankee Group; its job is to make money. And oh, by the way, it is paid to provide unbiased industry analyses. But in these hard economic times, who can blame a company for trying to ride a new wave of interest and make some money from it, though I do believe this could have been accomplished with a much more even hand.


When all is said and done, those who stand around at conventions extolling the virtues of WiMAX or LTE are not the ones who will decide what survives and thrives. Customers will make that decision with their checkbooks and credit cards. From what I have seen, the major WiMAX providers in the United States are having problems with their churn and customer growth is slow. They will reason that they don't have the devices available yet and there are not yet enough networks built out, pointing to cellular where it took 10 years or more to prove the industry was viable.


This is true, but Analog Cellular was competing only with IMTS-a phone system that handled one call per channel, had waiting lists, and was very expensive. Clear and Sprint have 6 to 8 competitors in every marketplace. Voice rules and pays the bills while data accounts for less than 30% of a network's income. Building out a new network and competing with incumbents is like running against a senator who has been in office for 30 years and has improved each year. Good luck!


It doesn't matter what the WiMAX camp says or does, nor does what I or others have to say. This is a market-driven economy, and success will be determined by customers who buy wireless devices and services, and renew every month. Any network that cannot hold onto existing customers and must rely on new customers to keep its cash flowing will eventually go out of business.


Back in 1995-96, I had my first run-in with Craig McCaw and his band of merry men. They were touting CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data), a technology invented by IBM but claimed as their own. CDPD was to revolutionize the wireless industry with data rates of 19.2 Kbps. RAM Mobile Data and ARDIS (Motorola/IBM joint venture) were running 8 Kbps and 4 Kbps, and CDPD was supposed to make a huge difference.


The problem was that CDPD was late having been promised in just a few more months, just another tweak, over and over again. In the meantime, McCaw's folks were spending a lot of time convincing computer companies not to waste time with RAM or ARDIS and to wait for CDPD. CDPD was finally available several years later but it did not deliver on the promises.


CDPD died a slow death as other technologies came along and took the wind out of its sails-a scenario that tends to repeat itself-but competition is good. RAM and ARDIS did okay against CDPD and have since been replaced with newer, faster technologies, which is normal in an industry based on technological innovation. The problem was that the hype surrounding CDPD slowed the growth of wireless data for about 2 years while everyone who had been convinced that CDPD was the answer waited for it. It is true that WiMAX is real today and LTE is not, but it is close. We won't know the actual LTE data speeds until networks are in place, but we do know they won't be 3-4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up!


Those who regularly read my blog and Commentary know I have been tough on the manner in which WiMAX is being portrayed and the hype that surrounds it, but NOT the technology.


Let's get real. Network operators need to compete based on what they can deliver today, not what they promise for tomorrow. Hype has a way of coming back to bite and I honestly believe that if the next 4G World is a repeat of this one, the bite will soon follow! Customers don't care what technology they are using, only that it works. However, they do expect "4G" to deliver next-generation data speeds, and today's WIMAX is not delivering. Let's stop saying WiMAX is 4G and start selling it on its proven attributes.


Andrew M. Seybold

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Vijay Adusumilli - 09/18/2009 16:43:22

According to the following quote and additional material even LTE is "4G". So won't we have to wait even longer for the true "4G"?

Yes, we’re at 4G World, but don’t get misled. Technically speaking, no 4G technology really exists because it’s not officially approved by a
standards body, either for WiMAX or LTE. 3GPP’s candidate for
4G technology is “LTE Advanced,” which is due to be addressed in 2011.

That’s when the IMTAdvanced process will come to a conclusion and
technologies for the IMTAdvanced spectrum bands will be selected, explains
Dan Warren, director of technology at GSMA.

Ray Abrishami - 09/18/2009 16:55:26

 I largely agree with the points made in your insightful article, but would like to highlight a couple of points:

- Today, 4G technology does not exist and we only have a semblance of target specifications. Therefore, there are no released 4G technologies. True 4G is estimated to become available around 2012.
- Based on published specifications, neither WiMAX nor LTE is 4G, so being advertised as 4G would be blatantly untrue. Best case scenario LTE release date is expected in 2010. By then, I would guess that LTE version 8 and WiMAX release 2.0 would be fairly close in most respects.
- While LTE has a strong cellular heritage, WiMAX is a true ground-up broadband. Therefore there will be different application sweet spots for each of the two based on many technical, geographic, business, and regulatory factors; and one will not necessarily replace the other
- WiMAX and LTE are striving to get progressively closer and closer to delivering the true 4G level performance by going through a normal technology evolutionary path. And there is nothing better available anywhere. Nonetheless calling either of the two technologies 4G would be false.


Ray Abrishami

Andrew Seybold - 09/20/2009 08:58:20

COmments about what is and is not 4G are interesting, and so I looked at the ITU definition for IMT-2000 Advanced and on their web-site here is what it says:

a high degree of commonality of functionality worldwide while retaining the flexibility to support a wide range of services and applications in a cost efficient manner;
compatibility of services within IMT and with fixed networks;
capability of interworking with other radio access systems;
high quality mobile services;
user equipment suitable for worldwide use;
user-friendly applications, services and equipment;
worldwide roaming capability; and,
enhanced peak data rates to support advanced services and applications (100 Mbit/s for high and 1 Gbit/s for low mobility were established as targets for research)*.
These features enable IMT-Advanced to address evolving user needs and the capabilities of IMT-Advanced systems are being continuously enhanced in line with user trends and technology developments.
* Data rates sourced from Recommendation ITU-R M.1645 - ´Framework and overall objectives

So you are both correct, according to the ITU, however the 3GPP is treating LTE as the first 4G standard, but it does not pass the speed test, but it is a LOT closer to the speeds published by the ITU than WiMAX currently is.

Dan Warren - 09/21/2009 01:46:22

Couple of things. First, thanks to Vijay for quoting me on, particularly since it is accurate!

Second, ITU may think 3GPP is pushing LTE as a 4G technology, but since I am sat in 3GPP SA Plenary, next to 3GPP's PR man, I can tell you that they aren't! LTE is an IMT-2000 technology, but 3GPP are working on 'LTE-Advanced' as their submission in to IMT-ADvanced (you like the aligned naming?).

The issue, as usual, is one of marketing vs. reality. It is tough to stop vendors and operators (and indeed the industry media) pushing a '4G' message on the basis of some pretty grey sounding documents that ITU-R have put in place.

To be frank, Generation-based marketing should be dead anyway. Consumers don't care about whether the bandwidth they get is 3.876G or 4.271G - they just want to use it! It's all of use embroiled in the industry that care, but the average consumer just wants stuff to work, and to have the best connection available to use.

Emily Green - 09/23/2009 15:04:25

I'm happy to sit back and let the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument about what is, or is not, bona fide 4G take place; I had my own wind-up in that regard years ago as part of IEEE's FDDI committee and I leave this decade's version of that to better engineers than I.

Regarding whether Yankee Group's 4GWorld event, which we created as an open industry-wide opportunity to discuss the path to 4G, was a 'blatant pulpit' for WiMAX and ClearWire, I do object to the embedded implication there and elsewhere in your post that Yankee Group or the event was playing favorites.

We haven't been around for over 40 years as an independent observer of communications technology without a balanced perspective. Technology vendors and operators on both sides of the aisle - WiMAX and LTE - asked us to create this event this year and we invested a massive effort into creating the fullest possible agenda. If the program agenda -- which is all you have to go on, right? -- looks unbalanced to you, then the conclusion you should draw is not that we like some people more than others, but that those are the vendors and operators most ready to talk about their progression beyond 3G. And that's what the attendees came to hear about.

But you're welcome to identify anyone else who wanted to speak or exhibit who wasn't actively recruited by Yankee Group to do so.

I enjoy your industry insights; we'd be happy to have you at our event in person next year so you can see for yourself.

Emily Green
President & CEO
Yankee Group Research, Inc.