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Is the industry ready for LTE?

This next-generation wireless technology has arrived, but how long will it take for all the pieces of the LTE ecosystem to fall into place and for 4G to live up to its promise?

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Long-term evolution officially ceased being “long term” a little more than a month ago.

It was then, just around the turn of the new year, that TeliaSonera launched the first two LTE networks in the capitals of Sweden and Norway, beating even the industry’s most optimistic estimates of when LTE would go commercial. Here in the U.S., Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS are set to follow in the back half of the year, as is NTT DoCoMo in Japan. It won’t be long before long-term evolution begins to recede in the rearview mirror.

LTE has finally arrived, but what does that mean exactly?  Will a revolution in mobile data services occur overnight, or are we only at the beginning of protracted developmental process that will make long-term evolution live up to its name?

When 3G first emerged at the beginning of the millennium, the industry preceded it with an enormous build up of hype upon which it utterly failed to deliver. Almost a decade later, the industry can now claim to have lived up to 3G’s promise, but only after delivering more powerful 3G networks and years of trial and error with applications and devices. For the first several years of their existence, UMTS and 1X networks were basically glorified voice networks. 4G, too, has suffered from similar hype, but this time around the industry has been far more restrained in its claims. While 3G’s hype centered largely on technology, boasting about 4G centers on concepts like cost-per-bit efficiencies, greater capacity per user and better customer experience. 4G may eventually turn the industry on its head, but right now it seems mainly to be about a better way of delivering data services.

Verizon Wireless will have one of the world’s first large-scale LTE networks in the world with plans to networks cover 25 to 30 markets and 100 million pops by the end of 2010. The networks will be ready—that’s almost a certainty – but whether all of the other pieces that go into making an LTE service hum will fall in line is a bit harder to gauge. It depends on what question you ask, said Brian Higgins, VZW executive director for LTE ecosystem development.

If the question is: will Verizon Wireless be able to offer relatively straightforward commercial mobile broadband access service via laptop data cards, then the answer is definitely yes, Higgins said. To meet that goal, Verizon Wireless and its vendor partners have had to cover a lot of new ground – not only deploying new radio access and core networks, implementing a service delivery architecture and upgrading capacity in its backhaul and transport, but also introducing a new subscriber identity module (SIM)-based billing and subscriber management system as well as work with manufacturers to ensure it has devices available. All of those elements have fallen into their proper place, Higgins said, allowing Verizon to offer simple broadband access from day one.

But if the question is whether a new mobile broadband revolution, complete with a myriad of new devices, applications and use cases, will emerge on day 1, then the answer, Higgins said is no. “The first set of devices are going to be dongles, which will be used with the types of data plans customers are already used to,” Higgins said. But when it comes to the new services and devices 4G is expected to shepherd into the wireless industry, that will take some time, Higgins said.

Verizon and its ecosystem partners are just beginning to explore the possibility for new devices and applications over 4G, and he’s not just talking about phones with better data connections. While some smartphones will invariably make their way to LTE network, the new generation of devices could come in any number of form factors, which could range from video devices that take advantage of LTE’s wide open pipe to machine-to-machine modules that don’t need massive bandwidth but can take advantage of LTE’s lower cost of data delivery. “It will be more of an iterative process,” Higgins said. “The trickiest problems will be with embedded solutions that don’t necessarily need to take advantage of higher throughput but could benefit from a more efficient network.”

MetroPCS is targeting its LTE launch for the same time period as Verizon, but its plans for that network differs greatly from Verizon’s. Metro plans to use the 4G network much the way other operators use their 3G networks, offering smartphones and data plans. If it is looking more toward the short term benefits of 4G, Metro has a good reason. It has no 3G mobile broadband data network over which to offer those services today. Metro has built CDMA 1X throughout its network, but never turned any of its 1X channels into EV-DO data channels, allowing it to offer narrowband data as well as voice, but not any higher-bandwidth services.

“We saw that for the applications our customers were demanding, except for downloads and video streaming, our network was enough,” said Roger Linquist, CEO of MetroPCS. LTE will give Metro the opportunity to offer this missing piece of the data puzzle as well as support future high-throughput apps, while allowing it to skip a generation jumping straight from 2G to 4G, Linquist said. “I don’t want to invest in a technology that we’ll have to phase out in a few years. … We see this approach as advantageous for us going forward from both a cost standpoint and an efficiency standpoint.”

By moving directly from 1X to LTE, though, Metro is much more dependent on developing an immediate ecosystem of devices. Verizon can experiment with new devices and business models (it’s already begun with its LTE Innovation Lab, the first result of which was a connected home solution developed by 4Home and unveiled at CES). But Metro needs 3G devices for its 4G network. That means smartphones.

LTE-ready smart phones, however, will require not only dual-mode chipsets so they can fall back on Metro’s 1X network, but they’ll need to have innards that are much more sophisticated than the silicon that goes into a USB card. Furthermore, handset vendors will also need the incentive—meaning the promise of volume sales—to make them, incentives that took years to emerge for 3G networks. Linquist, however, is confident that development in the LTE world will be accelerated. While it won’t be offering handsets at launch, MetroPCS has already selected Samsung as its primary handset partner and is expecting the Korean vendor to fully deliver on its promise of a dual-mode 2G-4G smartphones in the next 18 months. 

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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