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LTE Around the World

It should be interesting to put together our session for the Mobile World Congress. We will have access to the GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence group, which has great stats and numbers, and we will be comparing and contrasting them to what is occurring in North America.

We just signed a contract to provide our Wireless University at the Mobile World Congress in February of 2013 in Barcelona. As many of you know, we have been presenting our Wireless University the day prior to CITA Wireless for seventeen years now and plan to do so again in 2013, but we have this opportunity to expand to a more global audience and we are looking forward to this experience.

The event will not be branded as a “Wireless University” but rather as a full-day educational session entitled “Mobile – Today and Tomorrow. When we suggested the title “Broadband Today and Tomorrow,” we got pushback from the folks at the GSMA who did not believe that “Broadband” would be a draw for the event since LTE is not as big outside the United States. This got me to thinking about LTE or 4G wireless technology. It has been a perception for many years that Europe and other parts of the world are more advanced than the United States when it comes to wireless. After all, they did introduce GSM, a second-generation wireless technology, while we were still offering analog cellular service. It took some time before BellSouth, Cingular, and others moved from TDMA to GSM, and some of the first CDMA 2G systems were deployed in the United States by Verizon and Sprint.

However, the United States has taken a commanding lead when it comes to 4th-generation wireless. Verizon was first to move to LTE and did it with a bang. Normally, new wireless technologies are rolled out slowly over the course of many years, but Verizon jumped in with both feet and quickly began bringing up markets. It was dedicated to LTE and decided to make huge investments in the technology. AT&T has been playing catch-up but is making great progress while Clearwire and Sprint have thrown in the WiMAX towel and are placing their future bets on LTE. Even T-Mobile, the leader in HSPA+ 3G+ or as it called it, “4G technology,” has moved into the world of LTE.

LTE has gained traction in the United States faster than any other wireless technology. Why? It is not currently being used for voice except by MetroPCS, and Verizon has shelved its Voice over LTE plans for a couple of years. So LTE is about fast data speeds and capacity, plain and simple. Voice is still being carried on 2G and 3G networks and will be for some time, but LTE is about streaming video, fast access to the Internet, sharing pictures, and near-instantaneous data and video communications. The perfect storm for LTE was the explosion of the smartphone and tablet markets. Apple has led the pack in both of these areas. You might remember that when the first 3G iPhones came on the market AT&T was caught flatfooted and could not provide the capacity for these devices in major cities.

Just as we have all wanted fast and faster wired connectivity and access to the Internet, so too have we all wanted faster data speeds for our wireless devices. In this case, there was a very short lag between the introduction of LTE and the devices that supported it. 4G technologies were the first to be designed for fast data first, and oh, by the way, perhaps voice later. WiMAX and LTE are data-centric technologies whereas data was an afterthought for 2G and even 3G technologies.

That makes sense because wireless voice was the core “application” for wireless for many years. Then along came SMS or text messaging and voice customers found that text had great communication value as well, especially among the younger generation. Those of us who grew up with landline phones quickly embraced wireless voice because it gave us the mobility we wanted and needed. This generation has grown up with the Internet and just like we welcomed wireless voice, they have welcomed wireless data services in a huge way. Wireless data demand had grown at a rate of more than 100% per year for the past few years with no let-up in site. Network operators are facing spectrum shortages and are having to off-load customers to Wi-Fi and in-building femtocells. Still, in major metro areas, data speeds are not as good as they were only a few months ago, and as more customers come online and more videos are streamed, the situation will only worsen.

One reason for data growth in the United States is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has never dictated that a certain portion of the spectrum can only be used for a specific technology as is the case in Europe and other parts of the world. This permitted U.S. network operators to deploy analog, then TDMA, CDMA, GSM and then GSM/EDGE, CDMA 1X and then CDMA EV-DO, and finally LTE. LTE is the first portion of the spectrum since the 800-MHz analog days where all of the network operators have chosen a single wireless standard.

In Europe, on the other hand, spectrum was always paired with a technology. The 900-MHz spectrum required GSM, as did the 1500-MHz spectrum. When 3G came along, it was allocated to the 2100-MHz spectrum, meaning that 3G required four times the towers to build than the GSM systems at 900 MHz, and also meaning that 3G was only a metro-area technology for many years. Now that LTE is on the scene, Europe continues to tie technology with spectrum. However, things are changing since all of the 2G and 3G systems will be replaced with 4G (LTE) systems over time. Until then, LTE is on yet a different band, and Europe continues to tie a technology to specific spectrum.

When it comes to voice and data pricing, the United States has some of the lowest pricing in the world. India’s pricing is lower, as is China’s, but generally, the rest of the world is still paying more for wireless services than we are in the United States. I keep getting into disagreements about this point but if you look at the various pricing offered in the different countries, it is easy to see that even with all-you-can-eat data pricing basically gone in the United States, we are still paying less for wireless services than in many other places around the world.

It should be interesting to put together our session for the Mobile World Congress. We will have access to the GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence group, which has great stats and numbers, and we will be comparing and contrasting them to what is occurring in North America. We are looking forward to this event, and we are certain that there will be a great deal of discussion regarding our contention that Europe has lost its wireless EDGE (sorry for the pun), and that the rest of the world is watching, with envy in many cases, the LTE developments in the United States.

Andrew M. Seybold

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One Comment on “LTE Around the World”

  1. Martyn Roetter says:

    Andy,

    Congratulations on your contract with MWC 2013. You are correct that for now the U.S. has established a head start in the deployment and use of LTE technology. However I fear that this lead will be short lived because of a number of other initiatives and trends abroad as well as in the U.S. First, Europe is moving aggressively and actively to liberate spectrum bands from being tied to specific technologies. The 1800 MHz (not 1500) band that was originally destined for GSM is becoming very popular for LTE (in Asia as well as Europe) and the original 900 MHz cellular band is also becoming open to other technologies than GSM. LTE has also been launched in the Region 1 digital dividend band of 800 MHz and the 2.5 GHz band. The original 1987 GSM Directive that served a very useful purpose at one time has now outlived this purpose and to the Europeans’ credit has been revised (in late 2009). Spectrum refarming is underway in several countries. Furthermore in contrast to the U.S., where some key bands (2.5 GHz, and Upper and Lower 700 MHz bands) are effectively dominated for mobile broadband by just one operator, in most other countries more than one operator holds significant frequencies in each band which is a much better situation for competition (e.g. minimizing switching costs for consumers), particularly when carrier aggregation as in LTE-Advanced comes into the picture, thereby mitigating concerns about inefficiencies if spectrum in a band is divided between say 3 operators. Furthermore (whether by luck or good judgment) the rest of the world has avoided the trap into which only the U.S. – plus Canada in its proposed 700 MHz auction – has fallen with non-interoperability (another anticompetitive and customer-hostile characteristic) across its digital dividend band. I fully expect Latin America to abandon its usual practice of following the U.S. and adopt the Asian band plan for 700 MHz (as Mexico, Chile, Colombia have already among others) that is more spectrally efficient and interoperable across the band in contrast to the U.S. band plan. The device ecosystem for this band plan will be much larger than that for the U.S. As for the price of wireless services, it is true that the prices per minute of large voice bundles in the U.S. are among the world’s best. But it is also true that the per GB prices of LTE-based data services in the U.S. are significantly higher than those in other countries where LTE has also been deployed. When the path for wireless broadband in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world is combined with the increasingly uncompetitive path for fixed broadband services in this country then it becomes more likely than not that by the beginning of the third decade in this century the U.S. will find itself well down any league table of broadband performance and pricing.

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