LTE, WiMax, and the Future of Wireless

Cell phone processors and laptop CPUs get faster and faster every year, but there’s one thing that hasn’t kept up: The mobile data network that everything connects to.

Change is coming to the world of wireless, but it’s slow. America, if you haven’t noticed, is a really big place, and upgrading the country’s spiderweb of cell towers is a herculean task that requires a lot of money and often takes years to complete. The current state of the art now rests on two competing, so-called 4G standards that you’ve probably heard a lot about: LTE and WiMAX.

LTE is a high-speed data networking standard – a successor to the GSM standard – that just about every carrier is experimenting with, though Verizon has taken the lead with it in the U.S. In the lab, LTE is blazing fast, supporting theoretical 300Mbps downstream and 75Mbps upstream transmission rates. Even the real-world throughput of 5 to 12Mbps downstream is far faster than anything we’ve seen to date, and it even puts the best wired networking systems to shame. If you have a Verizon LTE device, there’s a good chance you can get coverage with it today: By this November, Verizon will have LTE service in 178 metro areas. AT&T’s LTE network is really just getting started, and is currently running (but running faster than Verizon, some say) in five major metro areas.

Then there’s WiMAX. This technology, espoused almost exclusively by Sprint, supports a respectable theoretical 128Mbps downstream and 56Mbps upstream. It actually predates LTE by several years, but delays and difficulties have kept its rollout limited, and real-world downstream performance tends to come in at around just 3Mbps. Today, WiMAX is fairly widespread across several dozen metro areas, but its future is uncertain. In fact, last month Sprint said it would also roll out LTE in 2012 alongside the existing network, leaving WiMAX even more of a question mark than it is already.

What’s more, LTE has undergone broad implementation worldwide, making it further likely that your wireless future will be on the LTE airwaves.

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