Bringing Fast LTE 4G Wireless Modems to Market

By J. Gerry Purdy  |  Posted 2011-04-29

Bringing Fast LTE 4G Wireless Modems to Market

Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS recently announced that they had turned on their Long Term Evolution (LTE) version of 4G in a few cities, with plans (along with AT&T) to roll out LTE nationwide over the next two years. In March 2011, the Global Mobile Suppliers Association estimated that 196 operators in 75 countries are currently investing in LTE.

The well-known phrase "it takes two to tango" is really appropriate here. If you stop and think for a minute, it takes more than the wireless operator to turn on their network. It also takes radio transceivers (that can both receive LTE signals and broadcast back to the wireless network towers). What if a radio or TV station announced a new service but there weren't any radios or TVs that could receive the broadcast?

Large infrastructure companies such as Nokia Siemens and Alcatel-Lucent make the "backhaul" equipment that powers the broadcast of LTE signals from cell towers. They have tons of electrical power available in which to send out their signals. On the other hand, notebook computers (and some handhelds such as Verizon's new HTC Thunderbolt) have to receive and then transmit LTE signals on battery power.

I recently talked with Andrew Green, Vice President of Marketing for the Mobile Computing Business Unit at Sierra Wireless, about the challenges to bring LTE wireless modems to market at the same time the wireless operator announces their network. While a number of firms plan to manufacture LTE modems for notebook PCs, Sierra Wireless was one of the first to deliver LTE products to the market and decided to introduce models that would be "backward-compatible" so they could "fall back" on 3G technology if the user was not in an area covered by the new LTE network.

Challenges Facing LTE Modem Manufacturers


Challenges facing LTE modem manufacturers

Andrew related that there are a number of challenges to a modem manufacturer to bring out an entirely new 4G LTE wireless modem. A modem manufacturer must:

1. Support complex deployments requiring different frequency bands and combinations of bands.

  • Support LTE as well as existing 2.5G and 3G wireless data networks.
  • Support desire to roam, both locally and internationally.
  • Deliver LTE modem products globally.
  • Support the evolving 3GPP LTE standard.

2. Control costs.

  • These have to be "in line" with current wireless modem costs.

3. Design for high-speed, multimode operation.

  • Ensure no bottleneck at device interface.
  • Manage heat and power consumption.

4. Provide good reception.

  • This requires careful antenna design and testing.

5. Obtain precertification of modems.

  • This requires significant interaction with the wireless operator, and data modems such as these can't be developed independently of the operator.

6. Deliver on promised performance.

  • Satisfy performance users' expectations when using LTE.

7. Design for TCO.

  • Enterprises that purchase wireless modems for use with their employees' notebook PCs have to consider the total cost to acquire and deploy the modems.
  • Wireless data rates need to be considered in the TCO.

LTE Products by Sierra Wireless


LTE Products by Sierra Wireless

Sierra Wireless set out to provide products that could deliver solid LTE and legacy performance right out of the box. Plus, they had to get products out in time to match the dates of the early announcements by the various wireless operators. Sierra Wireless has announced two LTE wireless products for the United States and Canadian markets: the AirCard 754S mobile hotspot and AirCard 320 USB modem.

The AirCard 754S hotspot enables users to share a single broadband connection and extend mobile Internet access for up to five WiFi-enabled devices. The AirCard 754S supports LTE and 3G (HSPA+) and will operate in most regions of the world.

The AirCard 320U is Sierra Wireless' first in a family of USB modems for LTE networks, offering download speeds of up to 100M bps and upload speeds up to 50M bps. In addition to LTE, the AirCard 320U supports DC-HSPA+, earlier versions of HSPA+ and its predecessors, UMTS, GSM, and GPRS.

One of the requirements for supporting enterprise notebooks is to provide modems for embedded use (as per the PCI Express Mini Card standard). Sierra Wireless provides embedded modules for LTE as well: the AirPrime MC7700, MC7710 and MC7750. These modules are embedded in notebooks using the Mini-PCI slot that's located underneath the notebook and keyboard.

LTE 4G over the Next Few Years


LTE 4G over the next few years

Over the next two years, most of the United States and Canada will have LTE operating by AT&T, Verizon Wireless and other operators. Each of these LTE modems will be branded by the wireless operator. Sierra Wireless also works with operators around the globe as they implement LTE as well.

There will be two early segments that will utilize LTE: 1) enterprise notebook PC users who are heavy users of data and 2) those wanting to download rich media.

Verizon has just announced their first phone-the HTC Thunderbolt-that has LTE data communications built in. We can expect to see a number of additional smartphones with LTE coming in the second half of 2011. This will be followed by AT&T launching LTE late this year and through 2012. A number of smartphone manufacturers are already working on LTE smartphones, so it's safe to assume that both Verizon Wireless and AT&T will introduce a number of LTE-enabled phones in the market during the next year (most likely including the iPhone).

Within a few years, LTE will become pervasive throughout North America (Mexico, the United States and Canada). Most enterprises will be deploying LTE wireless capability for their employees' portable computers, either as embedded modems shipped with the laptop or using USB modems.

But even as 4G comes to market, heavy users of wireless data will continue to use WiFi when it's convenient (especially for rich media applications due to cost). Thus, there will always be a "balancing act" between using wireless broadband (always available, good bandwidth, higher cost) with WiFi (occasionally available, high bandwidth and lower cost).

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D. is Principal Analyst of Mobile & Wireless at MobileTrax LLC. As a nationally recognized industry authority, Dr. Purdy focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America. Dr. Purdy is an "edge of network" analyst looking at devices, applications and services, as well as wireless connectivity to those devices. Dr. Purdy provides critical insights regarding mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of the column Inside Mobile & Wireless that provides industry insights and is read by over 100,000 people a month.

Dr. Purdy continues to be affiliated with the venture capital industry as well. He currently is Managing Director at Yosemite Ventures. And he spent five years as a Venture Advisor for Diamondhead Ventures in Menlo Park where he identified, attracted and recommended investments in emerging companies in mobile and wireless. He has had a prior affiliation with East Peak Advisors and, subsequently, following their acquisition, with FBR Capital Markets. For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people's mind-sets, as well as developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, Dr. Purdy's ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile and wireless industry. He is author of three books as well.

Dr. Purdy currently is a member of the Program Advisory Board of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which produces CES, one of the largest trade shows in the world. He is a frequent moderator at CTIA conferences and GSM Mobile World Congress. He also is a member of the Board of the Atlanta Wireless Technology Forum. Dr. Purdy has a B.S. degree in Engineering Physics from University of Tennessee, a M.S. degree in Computer Science from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Exercise Physiology from Stanford University. He can be reached at

Disclosure Statement: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column. If that situation happens, then I'll disclose it at that time.


Rocket Fuel