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Wagering on the Wireless Future

It never fails. I know marketing teams are all about the future, but consumers have barely dipped their toes into the world of wireless broadband technology -- enabled by what's called the third generation, or 3G -- before the fourth generation (4G) swoops in to steal the limelight.

At the huge Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, this week, much of the buzz is about leaping into the next generation. Today, consumers typically use wireless download speeds hovering around 1 megabit per second on AT&T (NYSE: T  ) or Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) networks. Tomorrow promises top speeds exceeding 100 megabits per second through a platform referred to as Long Term Evolution, or LTE.

But even though LTE is commercially a long way out and speeds will invariably fall well short of theoretical maximums, companies are clamoring to back the standard and participate in the potential upgrade cycle. French telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU  ) , for example, jumped on the bandwagon by announcing a partnership with NEC to accelerate the rollout of products based on LTE.

Other platforms are competing for the 4G title as well, including WiMax and a system called Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) favored by Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) . But even Qualcomm is hedging its technology bets by developing multimode chipsets that operate a number of standards, including LTE.

Still, while the largest of wireless infrastructure and device manufacturers, among them Samsung, Nortel (NYSE: NT  ) and Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) , will invest in a number of technologies, some upstart companies are putting all their eggs in one technology basket.

For instance, Alvarion (Nasdaq: ALVR  ) and NextWave Wireless have much of their product lines geared toward WiMax installations. Big players prefer to cover all bases, but upstarts sometimes take the risk of being relegated to a niche technology.

Investors should always take the marketing phase of new technologies with a grain of salt. Reality of the future rarely coincides with the spin of the present. But small players can see their stock dramatically affected as the winds blow between platforms gaining momentum and those slowly withering. A single platform focus increases the risk of an investment, but also the rewards, if it is right.

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