April 10, 2008

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WiMax vs. LTE
Let the wireless war begin
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† jandrews@hippopress.com

Itís not often that so many different corners of the nerd world come together in one super-geeky ball of news story goodness. You might want to sit down, because this week weíre talking high-speed wireless Internet, digital TV, government broadcast spectrum auctions and a brand new format war. This is no recap edition either, folks, but one single awesome conglomeration of dork.

Now that Iíve gotten the hyperbole out of the way...

Remember that spectrum auction the Federal Communications Commission held in February and March? The one that divvied up the wireless frequencies being freed up by the transition from analog to digital television next year? Bidding companies were originally barred from speaking about their offers, but once that restriction was lifted, Verizon and AT&T were eager to crow about their wins ó and what they planned to do with their spoils.

Turns out the two telecommunications giants have similar plans. Theyíre both using their blocks of the 700MHz spectrum to develop high-speed wireless Internet access that will be available in wide swaths of the country. Theyíre even using the same technology: LTE, or long-term evolution. As the vague name implies, itís not a terribly well-defined technology, but more of a roadmap or guideline. Verizon hopes to have service deployed by the end of 2009, while AT&T is targeting 2012.

Those two companies arenít the ones fighting the war, though. Enter Sprint Nextel with its Xohm service. Thatís the brand name for its use of the WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) standard. Sounds kinda like WiFi, donít it? Itís not, really, though it might as well be. WiMAX is made for long-range transmission, while WiFi uses different techniques to be good at covering a smaller area. Real hard-core telecom types might bristle at calling WiMAX just a bigger WiFi, but whatever marketing dude came up with the name sure wanted us to think that.

In truth, both WiMAX and LTE aim to blanket the globe with sweet, sweet Internet connectivity. No wires required, just a compatible device and a cell tower within range. Oh, and a service contract. You didnít think this would be free, didja?

WiMAX and LTE are competing to become the fourth generation, or 4G, of mobile communications. Right now, the hot phones all use some variety of 3G. A 4G phone (or laptop, or music player, etc.) will theoretically have much faster connection speeds and a more reliable connection.

How fast? The big selling point is being able to stream a high-definition video signal. Thatís a significant challenge even for wired Internet service providers right now. Sure, their networks are capable of it, but once you get down to the individual subscriber level, the bandwidth is so choked that tiny movie clips on YouTube stutter. Getting smooth data connections, with voice as well, over a wireless connection should make that a much more pleasant experience.

All made possible by stopping the broadcast of analog television signals over the air. Nice little circle there, huh?