LTE in 2011: Curb your enthusiasm

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from Network World.

So now that both Verizon and AT&T are launching LTE services this year, you should rush out to invest in 4G data plans and devices for your employees, right?

Not so fast.

LTE-which stands for Long Term Evolution - is a GSM-based wireless data standard that has been adopted by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile as their choice for 4G wireless technology. So far, tests of commercially deployed LTE technology have shown it can deliver average download speeds in the 7M to 12Mbps range, although these speeds are likely to decline once more users subscribe to the services. Along with mobile WiMAX, LTE is part of a new breed of wireless technology that aims to give users a wireless Internet experience that matches or exceeds the speed of most wireline broadband connections.

But you shouldn’t sign up for an AT&T or Verizon LTE plan this year and expect ubiquitous coverage … or anything close. Verizon will have the most LTE coverage by year-end, as the company launched its network in 38 major markets late last year and plans on adding several more in April. AT&T, however, has only said it will launch its first batch of LTE services this summer and has not specified how many markets will be included. Since AT&T is also working on upgrading its GSM-based 3G network to HSPA+ technology this year, you probably shouldn’t expect any nationwide launches by AT&T until 2012.

“I don’t think AT&T will be as aggressive as Verizon has been,” says Derek Johnston, the senior director of marketing at MobileAccess, a provider of indoor mobile wireless coverage. “They’ve been expanding rapidly but they’re also trying to upgrade their mobile backhaul and their antenna networks while also solving multiple issues with their HSPA network.”

Raghu Ranganathan, technology director for network infrastructure vendor Ciena, thinks some initial adopters of LTE will be small and midsize businesses located in major markets and that don’t have many branch locations in rural areas or cities where coverage has yet to arrive.

“I see that small businesses are not looking for broad nationwide coverage but they are looking for strong local coverage,” he says. “When businesses look for a wireless plan, they should focus not only on coverage but also typical upload and download speeds. They may find, for instance, that a network using HSPA+ technology in a certain area can provide them with connectivity that delivers several megabits per second.”

In addition to overall LTE coverage, early adopters should also be wary of the service quality they’ll get from their LTE services in the first year. While users who subscribe to the technology first will be initially rewarded with high-speed mobile broadband that delivers data speeds of 5Mbps or higher, they’re likely to see a drop off in speed as more users in their area begin subscribing to the technology.

Bryan Darr, founder and CEO of wireless coverage research company American Roamer, says LTE won’t come close to fulfilling its potential until more wireless spectrum is freed up for use by the Federal Communications Commission over the next five years. Until then, Darr contends, users may not get the high speeds they want from LTE networks on a consistent basis.

“There’s a lot of AWS [Advanced Wireless services] spectrum that has yet to be put into play, particularly on the 1700MHz and 2100MHz bands,” he says. “A lot of carriers are fine with the spectrum they have in rural areas but will be stretched in places like New York, San Francisco and Miami without new spectrum.”

The FCC released a technical paper last year claiming that growth in mobile data services will require about 822MHz of total spectrum, or 275MHz more than the 547MHz of spectrum available today for dual use in voice and data services. The United States will have all the wireless spectrum it needs to meet mobile data demand until 2013, the FCC projected, as that demand is not expected to cross the 547MHz threshold until then. The FCC is working to free up at least 300MHz of new spectrum for voice and data dual use by 2014, as well as an additional 150MHz that could be used solely for wireless broadband.

Devices also need time to evolve

The LTE networks aren’t the only pieces that need time to mature, however, as LTE-based devices will take a while to hit their stride too. The fact that Apple decided to release the iPhone with only 3G connectivity on Verizon’s network this month was a sign that some device manufacturers aren’t satisfied with LTE chipsets, says Gartner analyst Phillip Redman. Some manufacturers might hold off on developing LTE phones until the chipsets become small enough to fit into devices typical of those found on today’s 3G networks, he said.

“We’ve seen a couple of LTE phones out already, but the maturity in that market is still a number of years away,” Redman says. “The size of the chips is fairly big so they’ll need to get them down some for the phones to look the same as 3G phones.”

There are also concerns about battery life, as the initial batch of LTE phones will need to have larger batteries built in if they don’t want to suffer from poor battery life. Since 4G connectivity and high-bandwidth video applications are both likely to drain a lot of power quickly from standard batteries, it may take the device manufacturers a while to come up with an ideal balance between acceptable battery size and long-lasting power capabilities.

“There’s typically a trajectory when it comes to new devices,” notes Bob Burke, the head of service provider marketing for networking equipment manufacturer Netgear. “You’ll see larger, more power-hungry chips in version one of the device, while the next version is the first prototype that actually works well.”

In other words, waiting for the second generation of LTE devices to hit the market may be the wisest path for businesses.

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