Now that LTE is here, what's next?

Coming some day to a network near you: LTE-Advanced and LTE with voice

Verizon Wireless' newest TV ad brags that it has "America's largest 4G LTE network" -- an obvious response to AT&T's claims of "the nation's fastest 4G LTE network."

In the continuing war between the nation's two largest wireless carriers, the battle of late has come down to, essentially, LTE network size vs. LTE network speed. That fight is reflected in the ads each carrier is now pitching.

A new Verizon ad shows crowds of people dancing, biking and sweeping through streets at night carrying sparklers and smiling in a Fourth of July-type celebration. That ad comes just as the carrier rolled out its 500th LTE city on Thursday.

Meanwhile, AT&T has continued a series of months-old TV ads featuring children talking to an adult and saying funny things while seated on the floor. The underlying theme: AT&T has "the nation's fastest 4G LTE network."

Earlier this week, AT&T said it had activated LTE in 291 cities.

It wasn't too long ago that Verizon claimed it had the fastest LTE network. However, AT&T has repeatedly bragged at having the fastest overall network nationwide, citing tests conducted by Root Metric and PC Magazine. In some major cities, Verizon was, on average, faster in the PC Magazine test, sparking a few analyst reactions that network speeds can be highly variable depending on the number of users, and that speeds will certainly improve as newer technologies like LTE-Advanced emerge.

Asked in a conference call on Wednesday about the LTE battle with AT&T, Nicola Palmer, chief network officer at Verizon, touted a comprehensive approach to LTE that includes speed, "yet more than speed," including reliability and broad coverage. Palmer noted that Verizon has even pushed into Alaskan cities and rural areas of the U.S. to offer LTE with 20 smaller carriers. She noted that Root Metrics and JD Power had found Verizon had the most LTE coverage of any network, increasing the likelihood of a customer accessing LTE.

Palmer stuck with Verizon's standard definition of its average LTE speeds: 5Mbps to 12Mbps on downloads and 2Mbps to 5Mbps on uploads.

Next steps in wireless networks

Since Verizon's data-only network now covers about 95% of the population, Verizon's next big network push will be toward voice over LTE, known as VoLTE, Palmer said. Verizon plans to roll out VoLTE all at once in 2014, not market by market, she said.

As VoLTE emerges, it means that Verizon can sell LTE-only phones, which eliminate some radio chips for 3G networks that now provide voice. That could lower costs on the phones.

Palmer also said that Verizon will be working "aggressively" to implement LTE-Advanced technology, using a technique called carrier aggregation to allow phones to use two or more radio channels combined to communicate, more than doubling network speeds. (Qualcomm has posted a short video description of carrier aggregation on its Web site.)

In the case of Verizon, carrier aggregation would mean combining its 700 MHz spectrum holdings with AWS spectrum (which itself is over 1700 MHz for uplinks and 2100 MHz for downlinks).

Today, phones primary rely on on a single radio channel to communicate. But Qualcomm has developed a smartphone processor, the Snapdragon 800, which incorporates the ability to work with carrier aggregation across two or more LTE radio channels.

That chip is being used in the special Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone for LTE-Advanced, being rolled out in South Korea. SK Telecom said it had launched its LTE-Advanced network this week in Seoul with theoretical top speeds of 150Mbps.

Qualcomm said the Galaxy S4 with LTE-Advanced will also launch on KT and LGU+ in South Korea. A Qualcomm spokesman said carrier aggregation technologies "could be" launched by U.S. operators by early 2014, although none of the U.S. carriers has committed to a schedule. Qualcomm could not say when Samsung plans to make the Galaxy S4 with LTE-Advanced available in the U.S. Samsung declined to comment.

Palmer also refused to say when Verizon will have LTE-Advanced capabilities in place and at what speeds, but said there has been a lot of "hype" about it. "LTE-Advanced is really a set of enhancement and features that can be added to a network," she said. "You will see us leading in LTE-Advanced, however we will deploy things like carrier aggregation where we need it and small cells..., strategically applying features where and when customers need it."

Analysts divided on timing

Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics said that Verizon, Sprint and AT&T all seem to be aggressively moving to LTE-Advanced, while AT&T should be able to implement it in 2014.

But Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner, was less optimistic. LTE-Advanced in the U.S. "will be expensive and a long time coming" for the carriers, he said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, concurred. " I don't think we'll see wide-scale deployments of LTE-Advanced in the U.S. for at least two to three years," he said.

One reason Gold said it will take so long is that carriers are still recovering from the costs of rolling out LTE. And he expects that customers will probably be ambivalent about getting the LTE-Advanced speeds, once available.

This article, Now that LTE is here, what's next?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Now that LTE is here, what's next?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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