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What roles will broadband wireless assume?

There are a lot of unknowns that get in the way when trying to predict what roles the various mobile broadband technologies will settle into over time. One is simply that it's difficult to get proponents of each camp to state what speeds end user services will actually support. Though that seems like a straightforward question, per-user wireless bandwidth inherently is only as good as the amount of spectrum the operator has, how many people are on the network at once, how the operator implements the service, the size of the backhaul network and the list goes on.

But here’s kind of how it’s playing out so far. In the U.S., heavyweights AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are backing Long Term Evolution (LTE) for IP-based 3G services because it is a simpler upgrade to their 3G cellular networks. So are other incumbent mobile telcos around the world, for the same reason. Some, though, are also deploying WiMAX in its fixed form as a lower-cost replacement for DSL in the access network (including Vodafone and AT&T in select areas).

Daryl Schoolar, senior analyst for wireless broadband at In-Stat, says there is a market for both LTE and WiMAX technologies, but that they will likely play different roles.

“I see LTE strong in handsets and being used as an extension of existing cellular services,” he says.

By contrast, he foresees WiMAX following a similar path as Wi-Fi: as a “fill-in-the-gap service” where users don’t have cellular coverage or as a fixed landline replacement. Schoolar envisions WiMAX connections being more prevalent in laptops, netbooks and consumer electronics but weakest in handsets – and vice versa for LTE.

One issue is that isolated pockets of WiMAX coverage fresh out of the gate won’t have a cellular network to fall back on in places without service, he observes. And not much progress has been made on WiMAX-to-LTE handoff, which could be a fix to that problem.

This might be one reason WiMAX has suffered some hits lately. Alcatel-Lucent cut back its WiMAX investments. Nokia mysteriously discontinued production of its N810 WiMAX Internet tablet, one of the most widely available options besides laptop cards for WiMAX compatibility, and beleaguered Nortel discontinued its mobile WiMAX business.

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