What Are the Current 3G and 4G Technologies? An Overview of WiMax and LTE

WiMax, which stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is an IEEE standard for wide or metropolitan area networks (with the name of 802.16). As a wide area network (WAN), it provides network coverage to a very large area, offering high-speed data access.

It uses point-to-multipoint architecture, which is a one-to-many connection. The main hardware component is a WiMax tower, which is similar to a traditional cell-phone tower and can serve a huge geographical area. The other necessary component is a WiMax receiver, which is built into a WiMax-enabled device.

WiMax has been around for longer than LTE, and has undergone several revisions over the past several years, increasing its bit rate speed and evolving to support 3G and 4G networks.

A few years ago, WiMax was touted to be the technology that would do to internet access what cell phones did to telephone communications: providing universal access no matter where you happened to be. By stringing together several wide/metropolitan area networks, WiMax could theoretically span the entire globe and provide universal internet access.

Although that vision is still a goal for WiMax, by this point it appears that LTE is taking over and is well poised for more widespread adoptability, although significant challenges still do remain. (Additionally, some analysts do not even agree that these two standards are technically 4G wireless!)

LTE is a standard developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, and it is considered incompatible with 2G or 3G. It is technically very similar to WiMax, in both the hardware architecture of a LTE tower and devices requiring a LTE receiver.

There are some key differences between the two, however.

LTE purports to be a IP-only standard, by using VoIP for all voice calls, in addition to data transfer and multimedia streaming. While LTE is touted as being faster than WiMax (and 10x as fast as 3G), in practice it seems that the two are comparable.

The most common devices that are WiMax or LTE-enabled are smartphones, although other computers can also connect. The iPad 2, for example, has an option to add a HSDPA/HSUPA (a standard different from WiMax and LTE) receiver for extra money, which enables the user to purchase a data plan from Verizon to utilize WAN connectivity when outside of WiFi networks.

The iPad 3 will have 4G LTE integration, and separate versions will work with Verizon and AT&T. In addition, laptops can support WiMax and LTE with the right kind of receiver, which for current models would likely be built-in. (In the past, users might have bought a special box or card to use with their laptop.)

All these facts makes both WiMax and LTE much different from WiFi, a wireless local area network (WLAN) which by definition serves a much smaller geographical area. There are additional differences affecting the business model of the services. WiMax and LTE networks are for the most part controlled by major companies such as Verizon and AT&T, while larger-scale WiFi is an endeavor most commonly done by city and other governments.

Although this does not have much to do with the actual technology (a city could certainly set up a large-scale WiMax or LTE network, for example) this business reality has a profound effect on the adoptability and long-term prospects for these technologies.

Due to economies of scale, manufacturers of smartphones want to be able to stick with one standard, either WiMax or LTE, and simply put one type of receiver into all of their devices instead of having to support both. Spring took a big gamble on WiMax several years ago, but ended up being the only carrier to use it, as Verizon and AT&T quickly turned to LTE. This effectively ended WiMax’s feasibility as a universal standard.

The benefits of LTE are numerous: being able to connect to the internet anywhere without being in a WiFi network is an exciting proposition. At the same time, however, there are some important challenges to upgrading to these technologies. Supported devices, such as smartphones and tablets, are expensive, and require an ongoing monthly fee which rarely, if ever, includes unlimited data transfer.

Another question is whether smartphones and tablets are appropriate for being a person’s only internet connected device. They feature smaller screens, lack a physical keyboard, and do not have as full a suite of programs and capabilities as the simplest laptop. And although LTE can work with laptops, this does not seem to be an avenue that the major companies are emphasizing.

Another important challenges is that of the digital divide, with certain communities upgrading to LTE while others are left behind. Within the United States, for example, Verizon and AT&T are rolling out 4G LTE to select markets, and it will take a long time for it to spread to smaller towns and rural areas.

The problem is also international, as Verizon and AT&T are focusing on the US. Of course, this is also a problem with WiFi and broadband internet in general.

At this point, however, I believe the fact that WiFi networks can be used by a variety of computing devices old and new makes it the strongest option for widespread adoptability.

It also has the flexibility of being either a small network, such as in a home or office, or a large-scale network covering a whole city.

LTE is more expensive, caters to specialized mobile devices, and is effectively at the mercy or major corporations who may change their plans down the road. In a few years, however, it may be an altogether different story.


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  1. Hi,
    Wonderful article, Very geeky.

  2. Andrew Walsh says:

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

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