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3G or 4G? Parsing the economics of mobile broadband

GSMA technology director Dan Warren explains why some operators are running head-first toward LTE while others are holding back

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Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) is jumping into long-term evolution (LTE), launching its first networks this year, while AT&T (NYSE:T) is taking a little more time, planning its rollout in 2011 and upgrading its 3G network in the interim. In Japan, there’s a similar story. NTT DoCoMo (NYSE:DCM) is as gung ho over LTE as its Verizon, but Softbank Mobile appears to be in no hurry.

Why are some operators rushing forward with LTE while others are content to wait? One simple explanation is the distinction between CDMA and UMTS service providers: CDMA operators, with no migration path remaining on their 3G networks, are proceeding immediately to 4G, while UMTS providers, with plenty of upgrades left for their high-speed packet access (HSPA) networks. That’s only a partial explanation, though. It’s true many CDMA providers—Verizon, Sprint (NYSE:S), KDDI, MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS)—have been quick to adopt LTE, but in Canada Telus (NYSE:TU) and Bell Mobility (NYSE:BCE) have opted to deploy HSPA networks to compliment their CDMA networks. Meanwhile, HSPA operator DoCoMo will have one of the first LTE launches in the world, followed by Nordic operators TeliaSonera, Tele2 and Telenor.

Another generalization is that business model determines the deployment: Operators interested in offering true mobile broadband services are launching LTE sooner rather than later. Again, this explanation holds only so much water. While true for operators like Verizon and DoCoMo, MobilKom Austria and Australia’s Telstra are aggressively pursuing mobile broadband access businesses with souped-up 3G networks.

The truth is the reasons why an operator goes 4G can’t be boiled down to a simple rule, said Dan Warren, director of technology for the GSM Association. Rather, each operator faces a broad and varied set of factors when marking the decision to move to 4G. The competitive landscape in the operator’s territory, the market demand for mobile broadband, its spectrum holdings or the availability of future spectrum, and its financial position are all factors. But even if all of those factors work in an operator’s favor, 4G isn’t necessarily a given. The most critical factors in determining an operator’s near-term technology path, Warren said, are the age and status of its current 3G network.

The older a 3G network, the longer an operator has been recouping its investment in mobile data, clearing the financial hurdles for a major investment in a new 4G network. In addition, the age of an operator’s equipment determines how easy it is to upgrade to more advanced HSPA technologies or LTE—if even an option, Warren said.

“If you have shiny new equipment in your network, it will be much easier to upgrade than if you have old equipment,” Warren said. “The guys who have older equipment pay for their upgrades through the nose.”

NTT DoCoMo is the perfect example, Warren said. It was the first operator to launch a UMTS network in 1999, long before the industry had perfected HSPA. While DoCoMo has been upgrading the speed and capacity of its networks like anyone else, it has been essentially forced to retrofit its old base stations for the new HSPA software upgrades. Meanwhile Softbank’s later deployment of 3G used later-generation base stations built with HSPA upgrades in mind.

“NTT has equipment in its network that is very obsolete, while Softbank has more recently made its investment,” Warren said. “NTT is at the point where every upgrade to 3G is more painful than the last, while Softbank has hit the point where its equipment is good enough [that] it can continue upgrading 3G relatively cheaply.” On the financial side of the equation, DoCoMo has milked its 3G Foma network for all it’s worth, generating from it almost 10 years of operating profits. With a longer return on its 3G investment, DoCoMo is in a much better position to justify a new investment and a new network. Meanwhile, Softbank launched its first UMTS network at the end of 2002, but most of its heavy investment in 3G came in 2004. “Softbank, I suspect, aren’t in a position to go to LTE right now, not without writing off a significant proportion of their current business,” Warren said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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