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February 2010 | Volume 13 / Number 2
Next Wave Redux

Wireless Broadband Disruption – WiMAX, LTE or Wi-Fi

LTE (News - Alert) versus WiMAX is a standard topic in the press and at conferences, as if something disruptive was happening or might happen. Wrong! WiMAX and LTE are technical variations on the same business model providing similar services. If we’re looking for disruption, we need to catch up on what’s happening with Wi-Fi.

Today, WiMAX (News - Alert) is ahead of LTE, but only for green field deployments. All GSM operators will adopt LTE so, by 2015-2020, there will be billions of LTE devices sold each year. WiMAX will survive as a service platform alternative, but for the same services and business models as LTE.

Wi-Fi is a very different story. There are no carriers. Individuals, corporations, communities – anyone who’s interested buys their own infrastructure and deploys it wherever they want. Carriers are still needed for Internet connectivity, but otherwise, Wi-Fi infrastructure is a completely different beast.

First, Wi-Fi and “freemium” go together. Business models range from completely free to retail sponsorship (your local coffee shop), community sharing (the FON network) and/or bundled with other services (e.g. Verizon (News - Alert) adds Boingo to FiOS subscriptions). Yes, a few paid hotspot services remain, but they are a small part of the Wi-Fi ecosystem.

People who need completely mobile Internet connections purchase a traditional service – 3G, WiMAX or, eventually, LTE – leaving Wi-Fi hotspot aggregators to cut deals with traditional service providers, as Boingo (News - Alert) has done with Verizon. Arguably, freemium is the logical result of license-exempt spectrum and infrastructure ownership.

The most important result of Wi-Fi’s ownership model has been widespread adoption, leading to lower prices and ever more adoption. Projections are that there will be more than a billion Wi-Fi chips per year by 2011, with Wi-Fi showing up in all smart phones and all manner of other devices.

Finally, Wi-Fi has technology leadership. 4G leverages orthogonal frequency division multiplexing and multiple input multiple output, aka MIMO. But Wi-Fi adopted OFDM in versions 802.11a (in 1999) and 802.11g (in 2003), allowing Wi-Fi to achieve 54mbps operation. And Wi-Fi adopted MIMO with 802.11n (draft in 2007). Today, 11n devices ship in high volumes, use 2.4gHz or 5gHz spectrum and provide 100-300mbps. New Wi-Fi silicon will deliver as much as 600mbps, and beamforming antennas will increase range and allow dramatically more wireless connections in the same area.

As consumer devices with access to more spectrum than either WiMAX or LTE, Wi-Fi can deliver more megabits per second per dollar. Expect to see both fixed and mobile carriers including free Wi-Fi access in their subscription bundles as Wi-Fi trumps femtocells. Conventional operators are not going away but, over the next decade, it’s Wi-Fi that will shake up business models and drive disruption. IT

Brough Turner (News - Alert) is co-founder of Ashtonbrooke Corp. (, a stealth mode startup involved in wireless infrastructure.

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