April 03, 2009, 12:09 PM — In the two weeks prior to the CTIA Wireless convention, Motorola's team of technicians went to work building an ad hoc 4G wireless network on top of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The goal was to give convention goers a live outdoor demonstration of Long Term Evolution mobile broadband technology by streaming live high-definition video from the top of the facility into a moving van.
The results were far from perfect, as the network equipment's location atop the convention center was not ideal for propagation and thus led to jittery video, but the demonstration served notice that LTE is starting to move out of carriers' and device manufacturers' test labs and into the real world.
Widely expected to be the next major standard in mobile broadband technology, LTE received a lot of attention from both speakers and vendors at this year's show, which attracted 1,000 exhibitors, a 10% increase vs. last year (CTIA officials did not have attendance figures however). As telecom carriers talked about deploying LTE, there was a sense that the wireless industry was reaching the end of an era. Specifically, it seems that the days when cellular carriers would charge users for voice services by the minute could be numbered.
Because LTE is built entirely around IP, wireless users will be far more likely to make their calls using VoIP than via traditional cellular networks, speculated AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega during a question and answer session. In particular, de la Vega said LTE's high bandwidth meant that carriers would eventually move toward pricing models that charge only for data volume, not for minutes.
"Once we deploy LTE, we will be able to sell more data at a lower price than we do today," he said. "The future trend will be to just sell data. It's a little too early to talk about rate plans for LTE, but I think the way the world is going it will be about how much data you want to buy."
And it isn't just the way that carriers price their voice services that could change with the advent of LTE. Fred Wright, who serves as Motorola's senior vice president for cellular and WiMAX networks, predicted that widespread LTE adoption would result in more manufacturers designing mobile devices that place more emphasis on video services and less on voice and data.
"I expect that LTE devices will have four-inch display screens, for example, which won't have any buttons or keypads on [them]," he said. "It will be a larger display screen than current smartphones... the reason for this is that LTE will be all about video."
Verizon leading the charge
Although carriers AT&T and T-Mobile have committed to deploying LTE sometime in the near future, it has so far been Verizon that has taken the lead in getting the technology to the market. During his keynote address at CTIA Wireless, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg said his company was still on track to deploy LTE on a limited basis later this year, with plans to roll out the technology in 25 to 30 markets in 2010. If all goes according to plan, Verizon will have a significant time-to-market advantage over its competitors.
But Verizon is not content with merely getting LTE up and running quickly, as the carrier said this week that it was founding a new "innovation center" aimed at creating a wide range of devices and services for mobile broadband. The center, which will be in Waltham, Mass., and run in partnership with Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent, will essentially serve as a test lab for wireless device and application developers who want to try out their products on mobile broadband networks. As currently conceived, it will be focused on three major product areas: consumer electronics and appliances; machine-to-machine products that wirelessly deliver information between devices specifically designed for fields such as healthcare, security and utility monitoring; and telematics applications, such as the GPS solution used by UPS to track its vehicle fleet.
Wright said Verizon's decision to go full speed ahead with LTE deployment made it an "anomaly" in the wireless industry, as the majority of carriers have so far seemed content to take their time and milk as much value as possible out of their 3G networks. Wright predicted that because most carriers are aiming for LTE deployment a little further down the line, its success will not be hindered by the current global economic crisis that is leading to a major drop off in technology spending.
"The whole issue about LTE is not about today but about two, three, four years from now," he said. "We have plenty of time for the global economy to recover and I don't see that the current economic environment has any impact on the decision to deploy LTE at all."