LTE Speed

I have the need. The need for speed. Fortunately, the LTE tide is starting to turn. AT&T states that it’s pending acquisition of T-Mobile will allow AT&T to blanket the rural masses with the high-speed, 4G network technology. And wireless operator overall are beginning to roll out LTE  in earnest.

As of August 2011, LTE service in the United States is now available in over 100 cities.

  • MetroPCS was the first to launch commercial 4G LTE services in the U.S., with service in Las Vegas and Dallas/Fort Worth.  It has expanded to serving 14 metropolitan areas to date and plans to expand into the remaining MetroPCS cities. Note: TeliaSonera holds the honor of launching the first commercial LTE services in the world, with service in Stockholm, Sweden and Oslo, Norway announced in December 2009.
  • As of the end of July, Verizon has launched 102 cites and announced plans to cover more than 185 million potential subscribers in 175 towns and cities in the U.S. with its LTE deployment by the end of the year and mirror 3G coverage by EOY 2013.
  • AT&T executives announced their first five LTE markets are going live this summer in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The operator started selling new LTE/HSPA+ devices in stores and online on August 21. And it expects its 4G technology to be available in 15 markets by the end of the year.
  • Sprint and LightSquared have entered into a 15-year, network-sharing agreement that will drive rural LTE build out to “national” coverage based on FCC requirements to cover 260 million Americans by 2015.
  • USCC announced that it will deliver high-speed 4G LTE services and 4G-enabled devices to more than 25 percent of its customers in 24 markets by the holiday season
  • Clearwire also made a significant announcement earlier this month that it would add an “LTE Advanced-ready” technology to its 4G network. Testing confirmed download speeds in excess of 120 Mbps, showing the LTE network could “achieve far greater speeds and capacity than any other network that exists today.”

The union of AT&T and T-Mobile has tremendous ramifications for subscribers outside of major metropolitan areas. Fortified by the T-Mobile network, AT&T will cover 55 percent of the U.S. land mass. And it will reach up to 97 percent of the U.S. population – up from 80 percent – thanks to the enhanced focus on rural build outs. Without merger, AT&T’s rural build-out would not cover significant areas. AT&T’s LTE transition plans include upgrading 44,000 LTE sties in next two years and adding 18,000 new LTE sites.

For speed-hungry wireless users, this is all very exciting news. Soon we’ll be able to share video and HD pictures at lightening fast speeds if our LTE service is running anywhere near LTE’s theoretical, effective data rate of 100Mbps, (if you believe what you read on Wikipedia.) Speed like that has the potential to put cable operators out of business all together as voice, Internet, and TV programming can be delivered and distributed via an LTE smartphone.

Don’t cancel your cable service, yet, of course. LTE advantages are tempered by a number of LTE rollout realities:

Spectrum supply vs. demand. Wireless networks are spectrum limited. As LTE rollouts accelerate and more people start using 4G service, there won’t be enough spectrum to go around for the majority of people to enjoy it. Verizon, for instance, has stated that its LTE speeds are expected to be just 5 to 12 Mbps for this very reason. LTE service from MetroPCS is only running at 3G speeds, i.e., approximately 2 Mbps, max. And AT&T is targeting speeds of up to 28.7Mbps download and 10.4Mbps on the upload for their launch later this year.

Marketing wrangling. A direct by-product of spectrum limitations, legal wrangling in the wireless arena heats up over everything from the auction of the 700 MHz spectrum to the veracity of competitor’s ads. Litigation rarely expedites action. Even when matters are settled, the pool of funds available to finance a LTE rollout is drained by the preceding legal fees.

Time lines. Beyond legal wrangling, operators can’t just rollout LTE overnight. The time lines have to accommodate network design, management, performance, scalability, testing, and countless other concerns before going live with a commercial service.

Integration and migration costs. How are operators going to finance the move to LTE? Some tier 2 and tier 3 operators will try to offset the burden by sharing the networks of tier 1 operators who enter the LTE market first. Other operators plan to put voice service on hold and launch data-only LTE service first in order to leverage the standardization work already done there. But the equipment cost for voice over LTE isn’t the main problem. What’s going to be costly is providing quality of service in a mobile environment.

Miscellaneous challenges. These include coverage optimization, which may employ femotocells and network sharing to achieve the goal. Both network design and optimization require expert, detailed analysis in a field that is still emerging. Operators also have to manage suppliers, including the makers of devices and equipment that must work across networks.

Bottom line, it’ll be a while until LTE becomes fully mainstream as operators address the challenges that lay before them. Yes, some lucky subscribers who find themselves in large markets can enjoy faster speeds today, but for the rest of us? 3G speeds, at best.

And the operators? Most operators weighing the LTE opportunities with the realities above will quickly realize they can’t do it alone. With over a decade of experience rolling out today’s largest wireless networks and two years of direct LTE and 4G consulting projects under our belts, Nexius is working closely with a variety of operators to architect the best 4G paths forward.

Nexius is here to help prepare for and mitigate all the LTE challenges. To start, visit our 4G Signature Solutions page and keep an eye out for our upcoming Nexius report, “LTE: Paving a Path Forward” which we will be posting on our Resources page in the near future.

And don’t forget to contact us at info@nexius.com to learn more.