The idea of one combined 4G standard made a comeback during last week's CTIA Wireless 2010 in Las Vegas. It came from keynote speaker Bill Morrow, CEO of WiMAX operator Clearwire, who advocated one 4G standard in the future to drive down equipment costs and enable worldwide roaming.

Morrow always has said that Clearwire — which has aggressive plans to roll out major WiMAX markets this year — always has the option of adding LTE onto its WiMAX network and eventually deploying LTE. "My engineers tell me 80% of WiMAX and LTE overlap," he said. We're not going to fight a war. We are going to provide customers access. ... We can add on LTE if we want to. Once [LTE] reaches the equivalency to WiMAX, we can do that."

Merging the two technologies hasn't been seen as a feasible move. For starters, WiMAX has had the first-mover advantage and generally has settled into the Greenfield market, where operators are looking to make their push now with high-speed data services. In contrast, LTE has been reserved for existing mobile operators who are looking to make the transition to an all-IP network. Moreover, a different standards group is developing each technology— the IEEE for WiMAX and the 3GPP for LTE.

However, a merger makes more sense in the next generation of these networks, i.e., when WiMAX moves to the 802.11m standard and LTE moves to the LTE Evolution standard. WiMAX operators looking to make the move to the next level will be spurred to consider both technology choices. Meanwhile, LTE is moving toward the TDD (time-division duplex) platform, which historically has been reserved for WiMAX deployments.

In addition, silicon vendors are moving toward supporting both technologies in their chips. For instance, Beceem recently introduced the BCS5000 chipset that combines WiMAX and LTE and incorporates both TDD and FDD (frequency-division duplexing).

Morrow cited Beceem's chip as a way to bridge the two technologies, and said that Clearwire has been in discussions with players like Vodafone and Intel to help push this concept along. However, Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone said during a press conference last week that he couldn't see the two different standards bodies coming together.

It won't happen overnight, but I do see a number of WiMAX operators re-evaluating their positions regarding LTE in three to four years, especially since a giant WiMAX player like Clearwire is open to it. Should they choose the next-generation of LTE, it likely will be because they no longer have a need to be first to market. And should that occur, the implications on roaming and equipment costs will translate into substantial benefits for public-safety LTE networks in the long run.

Don’t be surprised a single world standard for 4G technology eventually emerges. The pathway to such an event is less cluttered than it used to be.

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