First LTE Mobile Data Plans: Similar Prices, Different Value

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For a typical monthly fee of US$80, subscribers to new LTE (Long-Term Evolution) high-speed mobile data services get very different levels of service depending on where they live. Customers in Asia are worst off, receiving just 5GB of data for their money, while some Europeans can get an unlimited data plan.

In the last month, Verizon Wireless in the U.S., Vodafone in Germany, Telenor and Tele2 in Sweden and NTT DoCoMo in Japan have all announced pricing for their LTE mobile broadband services, accessed via USB modems -- but with vastly different offerings.

NTT Docomo, Telenor and Verizon each offer plans that cost about $80 per month. Telenor offers unlimited data for that fee, while Verizon includes 10GB of data and NTT DoCoMo just 5GB. Verizon also offers a 5GB plan for $50.

Telenor's competitor Tele2 charges even less for its unlimited data -- $72 -- while Vodafone charges the most, $92, with a limit of 30GB per month.

Although a customer could use up a 5GB monthly allowance in an hour or so at the data rates the network operators promise, over 99 percent of current users will be satisfied with an allowance of 5GB, according to NTT Docomo.

It's not the mass of users of current services that the new LTE networks must satisfy, though, according to Telenor. Early adopters of LTE will want the freedom and flexibility that comes with unlimited data, a company representative said via e-mail. As the technology -- and the market -- matures and becomes the standard for mobile broadband, the company will introduce more packages, with and without data caps.

Price and data caps are not the only variables subscribers will encounter. Network speed and coverage also differ, thanks to the frequency band and amount of radio spectrum operators have. To get the maximum capacity out of LTE, operators need 20MHz chunks of radio spectrum for the uplink and the downlink.

Telenor and Tele2 both have that much spectrum -- enough, Telenor said, to offer typical download speeds between 20M bps (bits per second) and 40M bps. Verizon, on the other hand, has only half as much, and said users can expect download speeds between 5M bps and 12M bps.

However, Verizon's network uses a lower frequency -- 700MHz versus 2.6GHz for the Swedish operators -- and that should give users better indoor coverage. A test of LTE at 2.6GHz shows that it sometimes struggles indoors.

The best alternative would be to use a low and a high frequency at the same time, and let the modem automatically choose the one that will deliver the best capacity. German Vodafone has spectrum at 800MHz and 2.6GHz, but at first it will use the lower frequency to roll out mobile broadband to rural areas, according to a Vodafone spokesman.

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