Wireless Networking

Verizon Tips Its 4G Handset Hand

Verizon will have the first handset running on its Long-Term Evolution (LTE) 4G network by the middle of next year — about six months ahead of schedule — according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The development of LTE means faster cellular data transfers than the 3G networks now in widespread use by U.S. carriers, though exactly when LTE will become common has long been a source of uncertainty.

“Reports have had LTE available by 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and nobody was quite sure when,” Chris Nicoll, a research fellow at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld. “That’s why Verizon pushed ahead with this announcement.”

Verizon won’t be the first with a 4G handset; both Sprint Nextel and MetroPCS are reportedly going to launch 4G handsets later this year.

Meanwhile, Verizon arch-rival AT&T is continuing to invest in its 3G network and sticking to schedule for its 4G plans.

Look, Ma, We’ve Got 4G!

Verizon will launch its LTE service by the end of the year, Verizon CTO Anthony Melone, who’s been beating the drums for LTE technology over the past few months, told the Journal.

The first LTE phones will have dual chipsets so they can fall back on 3G access when they’re in areas that lack 4G access, Melone said.

Like Verizon, AT&T is building out an LTE network. Sprint, on the other hand, uses a competing technology, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or WiMax.

The Wireless Network Technology Lowdown

LTE is a set of enhancements to the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) that’s being worked on by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).

The 3GPP is a group of telecommunications standards bodies. Its job is to maintain and develop technical specifications for GSM. GSM is the Global System for Mobile communication, the most widely used cellphone communication standard today.

LTE supports seamless connection to existing networks such as GSM, CDMA-1, W-CDMA, UMTS and CDMA2000. It supports peak download rates of up to 326.4 Mbps (megabits per second) for every 20 MHz of spectrum, and peak upload rates of 86.3 Mbps for every 20 MHz of spectrum.

A standardized way to deliver voice and messaging services over LTE was adopted in February by the GSM Association.

WiMax is a little faster than 3G and currently a little more expensive than DSL. There are two types of WiMax technology: Fixed WiMax and Mobile WiMax.

Fixed WiMax is based on the 802.16-2004 standard and is used for fixed wireless networks. Mobile WiMax is based on 802-16e-2005, an amendment to the Fixed WiMax standard. It’s also known as “802.16e.”

Work on WiMax is standardized through the WiMax Forum.

Sprint and Clearwire both have WiMax trials underway in the United States. So does Comcast, which runs its service over Clearwire’s network. Clearwire merged with Sprint’s Xohm 4G unit and the resulting firm is called “Clearwire.”

Intel, which holds 22 percent of the new Clearwire, is working with carriers around the world to build WiMax networks. Its combined WiMax/WiFi module, formerly named “Echo Peak,” is an optional feature for Intel Centrino 2-based laptops.

In the end, though, WiMax may well serve more as a wireless broadband network, while LTE could become the technology of choice for cellphones.

What’s Up, Ma Bell?

In the midst of this madness, AT&T is holding steady. “We’re proceeding with our LTE plans; we’re doing trials this year and will begin our commercial rollout early next year,” AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel told TechNewsWorld.

In the meantime, AT&T is continuing to pump money into its existing 3G network to upgrade its speed. “We’re continuing to invest in HSPA 7.2, which could theoretically double network speeds,” Siegel said. “That’s very important because 3G will be around for a very long time as the 4G ecosystem is being formed, and 4G won’t be everywhere at the beginning of the rollout.”

HSPA, or High Speed Packet Access, is a combination of two protocols — High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) and High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA). It increases peak data rates to up to 14 Mbps in the downlink and 5.8 Mbits/sec in the uplink.

Early Daze?

It’s too early to roll out 4G handsets effectively, AT&T’s Siegel contended. “One of the reasons we’re taking a more deliberate approach to rolling out 4G handsets than our competitors have taken is to give the ecosystem time to form, and have devices like handsets available,” he explained.

That’s a telling point. “What are those handsets that Verizon’s announced?” the Yankee Group’s Nicoll asked. “Are they the very high-end business handsets or the low-end consumer handsets?”

Further, it’s not as though the advantage a speeded-up 4G handset launch gives Verizon will be overwhelming. “I’m sure AT&T will catch up to Verizon,” Julien Blin, principal analyst and CEO at JBB Research told TechNewsWorld.

Also, there’s the question of just how many 4G handsets Verizon will be able to push — perhaps not as many as it expects. “With new handsets like the Motorola Droid coming out this year, people are locked in for the next two years, so they’re probably going to wait for the end of their contract, which will come late 2011 or early 2012, before they go out and buy a 4G handset,” Nicoll pointed out.

Faster Phones, Lighter Wallets

4G wireless technology is going to bite consumers in the wallet, JBB Research’s Blin said. “This is what happened when 3G devices first became available,” he pointed out. “Like the first generation of 3G devices, the first generation of 4G devices won’t be cheap.”

Also, carriers may push customers toward tiered pricing. “We have said that, given all of the heavy data usage and the industry’s great demand for it, that demand for data is going to continue,” AT&T’s Siegel stated. “As an industry, we have to look at what pricing models will make sense.”

Perhaps voice plans will vanish altogether, the Yankee Group’s Nicoll speculated. “Once you get LTE, almost everything becomes data because they offer voice over IP,” he pointed out. “You won’t have to have a separate voice plan, but your data plan might end up running to maybe (US)$100 a month.”

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