The continued progress of LTE (Long-Term Evolution) was one of the biggest trends at Mobile World Congress this week. Besides modems, vendors showed netbooks and portable Wi-Fi hotspots that are compatible with LTE.
USB modems will support the mobile network technology first, followed by laptops, netbooks and then smartphones, according to Richard Webb, directing analyst at market research company Infonetics.
In Barcelona, Samsung, ZTE and Huawei showed modems for LTE. Samsung continues to be the most aggressive LTE modem vendor, and the company showed the B3710, which TeliaSonera uses in its commercial LTE network.
Samsung's modem will only work with LTE, and cannot switch to 3G when LTE coverage is unavailable. So to access 3G networks users would need a second modem. Other modems demonstrated at the show add support for, for example, HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access). That is important because LTE coverage will in the beginning be spotty.
Huawei and ZTE will ship its modems -- the E398 and the AL600 or AL620, respectively -- by the end of the year. Samsung promises to ship its second generation modem during the first half of 2010, according to a spokesman. But operators only expect to get their hands on a limited number of modems, with volume shipments starting in the beginning of 2011, according to Magnus Zetterberg, CTO at Telenor Sweden. His company will start offering a commercial LTE service this year using Huawei's network equipment and modems.
Samsung also showed one of its N150 netbooks fitted with a LTE radio module. However, it remains to be seen if the LTE version of the N150 will go on sale. Samsung will only ship it if there is demand from operators, the company said. The radio module will only work with 4G, just like the B3710.
Ericsson is also working on integrating LTE into laptops and notebooks. The company is most known for its mobile networks, but it also sells modules for integrating mobile broadband into laptops and netbooks. Ericsson's module will operate in multiple frequency bands for LTE and HSPA. But it won't start shipping the module until LTE has become a "mass market" technology, and that won't happen until the beginning of 2012, according to Ericsson.
ZTE is also working on a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that lets users share an LTE connection using Wi-Fi, according to Peter Bredin, LTE presales product manager in Northern Europe.
Missing in action were smartphone prototypes, but that was expected, according to Webb. However, at next year's Mobile World Congress he expects to see a handful of devices that will start shipping at the end of 2011 or beginning of 2012.
One of the things vendors have to think about when designing products for LTE is which frequencies they will operate on. Proponents of the next-generation mobile technology often point to the planned global rollout of LTE as one of its major advantages, but mobile operators will use a plethora of different frequencies.
LTE pioneers Verizon Wireless, NTT DoCoMo and TeliaSonera will all use different frequency bands for their respective LTE network. So for roaming in the U.S, Japan and Europe to work, modems will have to support 700MHz, 2100MHz and 2600MHz, with more bands to be used in the future.
Some modems will be able to handle at least a few of these bands. The AL600 from ZTE is being developed for the North American market and will operate in the 700MHz band, which Verizon will use in its upcoming network. The modem will also operate LTE in the 2.6GHz band, which will be the most common LTE band in Europe. That means data roaming will be possible as soon as operators in the U.S. and Europe launch their services and sign roaming agreements.
TeliaSonera's LTE network is up and running in Stockholm and Oslo, and the coverage will continue to expand in 2010. Support for roaming will be a natural next step, according to Tommy Ljunggren, head of system development at TeliaSonera.
Data roaming is also an important source of income, and the technical part isn't that hard to achieve. The challenging part is to come up with the best ways to charge for it, according to Ljunggren. TeliaSonera doesn't want to specify a time plan. However, as more operators get their LTE networks up and running roaming will soon follow, he said.
Some modems will let an operator use several frequencies in one country, as well. Huawei's E398 operates at 2600MHz and 900MHz. The latter will help operators offer good coverage and 2600MHz models will offer the highest speeds. So, the combination is the best of both worlds, according to Zetterberg. Currently, 900MHz is used by GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), but will be opened up for LTE.