WiMAX Smartphones: The Year-long Lead on LTE

The reviews are in on the latest WiMAX smartphone, the Samsung Epic 4G, and they are resoundingly good — meaning that Sprint and its partner in WiMAX Clearwire should have another winner on their hands when the Epic goes on sale Aug. 31. For industry watchers, that date should set a clock ticking on when we might see the first mass-market Long Term Evolution-based smartphone available in the U.S., from big LTE backer Verizon: Will it be Aug. 31, 2011 before we see a Verizon-branded LTE smartphone? Or later? And what does that year-long lead mean for WiMAX’s shelf life?

Given the design complexities that an LTE smartphone from Verizon will have to overcome — namely, multiple radios for different frequencies for LTE upstream, downstream, and 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity — it’s probably safe to bet that LTE smartphones will arrive later, rather than sooner, than the oblique “mid-2011″ deadline Verizon is now publicly stating. And yes, we know that Samsung is planning to release a “LTE smartphone” for MetroPCS in Las Vegas maybe later this year. But one phone for one market does not a national competitor make. It’s interesting for sure, but in any WiMAX vs. LTE entree-provider comparison the MetroPCS offering is sort of a side dish.

Put aside for the moment the kerfluffle about whether or not Clearwire and Sprint will move to LTE in the future, since it’s not something that will happen anytime soon. Instead, start thinking about what will happen in the next 12 months, when Sprint and Clearwire get to keep selling all the HTC EVO 4G phones and Samsung Epic 4G phones they can get their hands on, while Verizon tries to explain why you need to buy an LTE data card and a Verizon smartphone, with limited-download more-expensive data plans for both.

Almost a year ago, I was of the opinion that WiMAX providers needed a snazzy iPhone-like smartphone, if for no other reason than to get the point across. You can market all you want, but what says faster broadband better than a cool phone that can also act as a Wi-Fi hotspot? As I said then, WiMAX folks needed a cool handset to help them spread the message:

What the WiMax industry really needs? A snazzy WiMax-enabled smartphone that can do the talking for them.

Now, the HTC EVO 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G seem to be doing just that. If this device lead can stretch to next summer, will consumers really want WiMAX to go away?

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