Devices Key as WiMax Supporter Moves to LTE

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One of the biggest supporters of WiMax, Russian operator Yota, has announced plans to roll out LTE (Long Term Evolution) later this year, citing the expected availability of devices as the main reason for the switch.

For any operator that wants to offer mobile services, it is logical to look at LTE, according to Mark Newman, chief research officer at Informa Telecoms and Media. There will eventually be a greater choice of devices for LTE than WiMax devices, Newman said.

Richard Webb, directing analyst at market research company Infonetics, agrees: Yota has been offering the HTC Max 4G, which supports WiMax and GSM, for some time, but it hasn't been able to get a hold of a wide range of devices, he said.

However, it will take a few years before LTE can compete with the number of devices currently available for 3G, according to Webb.

Yota CEO Dennis Sverdlov also highlights the availability of devices as one of the reasons for deciding to start rolling out LTE. The operator expects to see the main manufacturers launching a large number LTE devices, which allows Yota to deliver "much more interesting services," Sverdlov said in a statement Monday.

Yota's support for LTE is a blow for WiMax. The Russian operator has often been held up as a big supporter of WiMax, according to Newman. How big an effect the move will have on WiMax depends on how many other operators follow the same path, according to Webb.

Clearwire and Sprint are now so committed to their mobile WiMax roll-out that it will stick to its guns, according to Newman. However, even they have opened the door for LTE, saying that the technology could be a possible choice in the future, he noted.

In light of Yota's announcement, any operator that is planning to roll out mobile services using WiMax should look at their roadmap, and seek some reassurances from handset manufacturers that they will support WiMax, according to Newman.

Even if WiMax doesn't become a popular alternative for mobile services, it will still have a role to play. WiMax, at the moment more widely available than LTE, will be most successful in markets where fixed broadband isn't commonly available and the need for mobile offerings is immediate, which is typically in emerging and rural markets, according to Newman.

If you're building a WiMax-based network, because that is what's available, for fixed or nomadic broadband services in Africa, perhaps you don't care what Yota and Clearwire are doing, Webb said.

Yota's plan is to offer LTE in five Russian cities in 2010, including Kazan, Samara and Novosibirsk, with Moscow and Saint Petersburg following in 2011. At the end of 2011, Yota's LTE network will cover more than 30 million people.

On May 13, operators had committed to build 64 LTE networks in 31 countries, according to data from the industry organization Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA). Up to 22 LTE networks will be used to offer commercial services by the end of 2010 and 39 or more networks will be launched by the end of 2012, the GSA said.

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