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The State of LTE: Carriers Take Measured Approach to Adoption of the 4G Technology

By: Paula Bernier

The latest big news on the LTE front is that AT&T has tapped Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) and Ericsson to supply radio access equipment and related products and services for its 4G build. The fact that these vendors won the multi-year deals, for which the terms were not disclosed, is no big surprise, however, given AT&T uses the companies’ gear for its 3G network, and Verizon (News - Alert) has been working with the two outfits on its own LTE effort.

In making the selection in mid February, AT&T reiterated its earlier announced plans to do LTE (News - Alert) trials later this year and early commercial deployments starting in 2011, which the carrier says will coincide with widespread availability of equipment and LTE-compatible end user devices.

AT&T’s choice of Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson (News - Alert) for LTE also points to what some sources indicate is a larger trend: The expectation that 3G and LTE 4G will live in harmony for some time to come.

Erik Ekudden, vice president of technology and industry at Ericsson, recently told INTERNET TELEPHONY that the 3G and 4G technologies adopted by AT&T, Verizon and others followed a similar development process, and that the focus given to testing and interoperability of the two wireless options will enable these wireless operators to migrate to LTE relatively easily and at their own pace.

Indeed, LTE is the next generation of the popular GSM/UMTS (News - Alert) mobile technology underlying AT&T’s existing 3G network. Even as AT&T last year publicly embraced LTE, it made new investments to upgrade 3G cell sites to HSPA 7.2 technology, for which it offers 10 end user devices.

Although AT&T has been lambasted for poor coverage and capacity on its 3G network, which has seen heavy traffic in light of the introduction of the iPhone (News - Alert), the company has made clear it aims to continue to leverage its 3G network. That is evident in these new 4G supplier agreements, which stipulate that the 3G equipment delivered by Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson to AT&T starting this year must be software-convertible to LTE, so the company doesn’t have to rip out hardware when it needs to make the long-term evolution.

Tekelec CTO Vince Lesch (News - Alert) points out that, despite exploding mobile broadband demand, service provider revenue is not following the same upward curve from these new access services. As a result, he says, wireless operators must find a way to address demand while at the same time holding down costs, which they’re doing by trying to leverage existing gear whenever possible. That means wireless broadband will typically be supplied over hybrid networks that use a mix of technologies and, thus, require special gear like gateways to handle interworking and security between the two sides.

Wireless operators also will need to harmonize the management systems between 3G and 4G networks, according to TM Forum (News - Alert), which this month is announcing a major new initiative to produce single-interface, multi-vendor technology management standards for advanced 4G wireless networks. TMF is teaming with 3GPP to develop common standards for fault management, performance management and configuration management across 3G and 4G.

Just how long AT&T can hold the line on 3G, however, remains to be seen, as the company today serves twice the number of smartphone customers as its nearest competitor, and reports that it’s seen mobile broadband traffic grown of more than 5,000 percent over the past three years. Indeed, the company has acknowledged that its network is not up to par in certain areas in light of this rapid growth.

TownHall Investment Research recently said AT&T’s investments in wireless are a disappointment, and that it would need to spend an additional $5 billion on its wireless network to get on even footing with Verizon Wireless, with which it’s been in advertising wars in recent months over wireless broadband coverage. According to reports, Gerard Hallaren, director of research at TownHall Investment Research, said AT&T has focused more on wireline than wireless network investments, although the wireless side accounts for most of its profits.

Allen Nogee, In-Stat (News - Alert) analyst, adds that while the use of such technologies as HSPA may be impeding LTE uptake, there are some “glaring issues” around 4G.

“These include lack of spectrum, signal-to-noise ratio, and non-established patent and royalty pool,” he says. “It’s clear that the shift toward 4G LTE will be gradual and protracted.”

The Federal Communications Commission has been vocal about its intention to help out with the 4G spectrum shortage and has already set in motion plans to clear the 700 MHz band to enable the rollout of broader next generation networks. But that’s just one small part of the 4G challenge.

Another good reason for wireless providers to retain 3G technology as they adopt 4G is because the first iteration of LTE will not support voice. However, while the first LTE endpoints are expected to be data only, there’s the potential for dual/mode devices that would enable voice services over the 3G network until IMS-based voice over LTE is ready to roll.

The great voice debate surrounding LTE, however, hasn’t stopped Verizon Wireless from moving forward with its plans, which entail deploying LTE networks in 20 to 30 markets this year. The company, which says has publicly stated plans to use IMS-based voice from the get-go, also has publicly stated it expects to have full nationwide cover of LTE in 2013.

Elsewhere in the world, telcos are embracing LTE as well. To date, Ericsson has signed commercial LTE contracts with four other major global operators, two of which are in the United States, the world's fastest growing LTE market. That includes TeliaSonera (News - Alert), which Ekudden says launched LTE in Oslo and Stockholm late last year and plans to implement a nationwide LTE network over time.

And while Sprint, Google and Intel (News - Alert) have joined forces with cable companies Bright House Networks, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc. to get behind the Clearwire WiMAX effort, Cox Communications has embarked on a path to implement LTE as well.

Working with Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei (News - Alert), Cox recently successfully completed LTE-based voice calling and high-definition video streaming technology trials and tells INTERNET TELEPHONY it remains “bullish” about LTE. However, the company declined to disclose an LTE network deployment or service rollout schedule.

But, it an email interview with INTERNET TELEPHONY, a company spokeswoman wrote:

“We designed and planned our 3G deployment with clear intent to upgrade to 4G, thereby eliminating many of the ‘hurdles’ that many of the established 3G operators must face. We were able to plan for this upgrade given the timing of our entry into the wireless market and the technical capability of today's equipment as well as the systems and backhaul solutions that are available at this time.” IT

Wireless Vendor Offers Smartphone Wi-Fi Offload Capability

By Paula Bernier

It’s common knowledge in communications circles that the boom in mobile data, attributed mainly by smartphone usage, is causing stress on wireless networks. Kineto Wireless (News - Alert) Inc. is addressing this problem with the introduction of the Smart Wi-Fi Offload solution.

The solution, explains Steve Shaw (News - Alert), Kineto’s vice president of corporate marketing, offloads all mobile services to Wi-Fi networks. It consists of a gateway and software, which runs on the smartphones. The software can be preloaded by the service provider or downloaded by the user.

For the consumer, Smart Wi-Fi Offload can mean better wireless coverage and performance, says Shaw. For the operator, it can result in a lighter load on the network, he says. It also can enable mobile operators to address the mobile VoIP threat by offering discounted or free Wi-Fi calling, Shaw adds.

Other Wi-Fi offload solutions on the market enable users to offload traffic from Internet-based sites such as YouTube (News - Alert), but those offer much more limited capabilities and don’t do as much to address consumer and operator needs, says Shaw, adding that Kineto itself has a basic Wi-Fi offload solution. With basic Wi-Fi offload, the user can opt to use a Wi-Fi connection for his or her smartphone when such a network is in range, but that can drain the smartphone battery more quickly because the device’s Wi-Fi and cell radios have to run simultaneously. For the mobile operator, basic Wi-Fi offload does nothing to expand its network coverage and can result in Web services like Skype (News - Alert) and YouTube receiving great coverage, while the operator’s own services are presented with a lower level coverage.

Kineto’s Smart Wi-Fi Offload solution addresses that by delivering all mobile services over Wi-Fi rather than the macro network. That way the cellular radio can be turned off when the smartphone is connected to Wi-Fi, eliminating battery drain and freeing up spectrum from other users outside.

“Smartphones are driving tremendous increases in mobile data usage, straining mobile networks in the process,” commented Peter Jarich, service director with Current Analysis (News - Alert). “Mobile operators need to dramatically increase network capacity in short order, while meeting the performance requirements of their subscriber base. Wi-Fi, installed in millions of homes and offices around the world, as well as in many smartphones themselves, is a natural technology choice for mobile operators to address these growing problems.” IT

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