4G Wireless in America: Where We Are, Where We’re Headed

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Verizon: 4G Phones, Tablets Coming Soon

In early October, Verizon started beating the promotional drum on its forthcoming LTE-based 4G network, by announcing a list of 39 cities and more than 60 airports that would be covered when the service went live later in 2010. Although Verizon didn't announce pricing plan or device details, the company is expected to go to market first with laptop USB modems, which will also be able to connect to the company's 3G network when LTE services are unavailable.

Verizon Wireless president and CEO Lowell McAdam
Verizon Wireless president and CEO Lowell McAdam, during a press event announcing 39 new Verizon LTE cities at the CTIA show in San Francisco earlier this month.
The list of "NFL cities" includes all major metropolitan areas in the United States, as well as most of the country's biggest airports, in a nod toward supporting the business professional that Verizon sees as its early-adopter user. "These are major markets and we're covering them in a major way," said Verizon Wireless president and CEO Lowell McAdam during a press event at the CTIA show in San Francisco. Verizon says it will reach 75 percent of the populations of its 39 new markets at launch.

Verizon, which recently announced plans to sell Apple's iPad bundled with its 3G wireless MiFi router, expects to have a multitude of devices available for its 4G network later in 2011. "You will see [4G] tablets, smartphones, and M2M devices roll out over the first half of next year," said McAdam, who mentioned that Verizon will announce most of its LTE details at the CES show in Las Vegas in January--with Google CEO Eric Schmidt alongside, presumably to talk about Android-based devices for the LTE network.

The expected speeds on Verizon's LTE network are 5 to 12 mbps on the download and 2 to 5 mbps on the upload. The key detail for many potential users, however, will be the pricing plans for LTE, which are expected to be of the tiered or pay-for-what-you-use variety instead of the current 3G cellular data plans, which roughly average $60 for 5GB of data per month.

"We think there's a place for unlimited plans, but [most of] our customers will need to shift their consumption to a pay-as-you-use plan," McAdam said.

AT&T Remains Quiet on 4G

Judging by AT&T's comments at 4G World, the company is still very much focused on the 3G world.

David Haight, AT&T's vice president for business development in the company's emerging devices unit, says his company is sticking to its plan to cover 70 to 75 million users with LTE rollouts in the second half of 2011. Earlier this month, at the CTIA show in San Francisco, AT&T introduced USB dongles that will be software-upgradable to work with the LTE network when it launches.

AT&T emerging devices VP David Haight
"I think we've gotten it wrong." AT&T emerging devices VP David Haight on his company's 3G-embedded device pricing plans.
And that's it. If there was a surprise from AT&T at 4G World, it was listening to one of its top execs show some humility--by admitting that the carrier was more than partly to blame for the low acceptance of its 3G-embedded laptop and netbook marketing plans.

"I think we've gotten it wrong" on embedded-device pricing plans, Haight said. The $60-a-month plan and a two-year contract, he said, was not a great job of marketing. "People didn't want that," he said.

Of course, it's easy to admit mistakes when you also have a big win on your side, namely the runaway success of AT&T's exclusive deal to sell 3G-enabled versions of Apple's iPad. Again, while not necessarily about 4G, Haight's crowing about the lower-cost, pay-as-you-go data plans available for the iPad is something that you might hear more of from AT&T as the company rolls out its own LTE network beginning in the latter part of 2011.

"The fact that people didn't have to sign a contract gave them more of a feeling of being in control" of their broadband plan, Haight said, adding that the on-screen purchase procedure (which was not unlike the familiar iTunes store model) was also appealing to users. Haight predicted "an explosion" of tablets in early 2011. He says tablets with embedded cellular radios (3G or 4G) will become more popular than Wi-Fi-only tablets, and more popular than tablets bundled with some other form of connectivity, such as the iPads with MiFi wireless routers that Verizon plans to sell.

"We think having the connectivity on the device itself gives you much greater ease of use," Haight said.

T-Mobile's HSPA+: 4G or Not 4G?

Without announcing any new plans, T-Mobile executives at the 4G World show spent a lot of time advancing a somewhat new notion: that the company's HSPA+ network should be seen as a true "4G" competitor, even if the technology is generally regarded as being of 3G vintage.

T-Mobile HTC G2
T-Mobile's first HSPA+ smartphone, the HTC G2
Standing in front of a presentation slide titled "HSPA+ delivers a 4G experience," which showed the technology able to move toward multimegabit speed rates in the near future, T-Mobile senior director of engineering Mark McDiarmid said that end users should be the judge and jury on what is 4G and what is not. Currently, T-Mobile is somewhat foggy on what kind of speeds its HSPA+ network will deliver, advertising "theoretical peak download speeds" of 21 mbps that probably aren't seen in the real world. Although some reviewers have tested the T-Mobile gear (such as its new HSPA+ smartphone, the G2 Android device) at speeds rivaling or besting those on the Sprint/Clearwire network, the fact that T-Mobile has issued no official statement on the expected throughput speeds of the HSPA+ network raises questions about its true capacity and reliability.

"Ultimately, consumers will decide if what we're offering is a good value or not," said McDiarmid in a short interview after a panel discussion. Though McDiarmid and T-Mobile see LTE in the future, "there's too much opportunity in HSPA+ that can be exploited and taken to market" to move to LTE right now, he said. T-Mobile, he noted, will have HSPA+ networks in 100 major metro areas by the end of 2010, up from the 65 markets where it is available now.

As for new devices coming to the network, McDiarmid predicted that "in the next 5 years you're going to see a pull toward more low-end smartphones," and said that HSPA+ would be a better base technology for such devices since it could support them at a much lower price point than similar devices using WiMax or LTE.\

Paul Kapustka is editor and founder of Sidecut Reports, an independent research firm that specializes in wireless technologies.

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