The announcement by AT&T that it would be launchingLong-Term Evolution phones in five markets by sometime this summer is an indicator of the current trend toward LTE generally throughout the United States. While the carriers implementing LTE are calling it 4G technology, it’s more of a pre-4G implementation.
To be true 4G, these networks would have to support download speeds of 100M bps. Right now, the only commercial wireless network that’s even approaching 4G speeds is T-Mobile’s 42M bps HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) network.
T-Mobile announced May 24 that the company was cranking up the speed on its 4G network to the new higher speed in over 50 markets. In other words, T-Mobile is providing wireless data services in 10 times as many markets at over twice the speed of AT&T, which is trying to take it over.
It’s worth noting that one of AT&T’s stated goals if it’s allowed to consume T-Mobile, is to dismantle T-Mobile’s data network so it can build its own slower LTE network. I’m sure this makes perfect sense to AT&T, just as it would to any other company to whom customers are meaningless. (Do you doubt this? Just check AT&T’s customer-satisfaction ratings.)
If T-Mobile’s high-speed data network expansion didn’t make AT&T’s efforts look pathetic in their own right, considerVerizon Wireless, which is expanding to 21 additional markets by mid-June, giving the company LTE coverage in 76 markets. The company claims that the Verizon Wireless network will cover every area presently covered by 3G before the end of 2013. Considering that Verizon Wireless has consistently delivered on its network promises early, their claim is certainly credible.
With AT&T, these claims need to be taken with a grain of salt. AT&T says that it will cover 15 markets by the end of the year with LTE. The first five of those markets, three of which are in Texas, will arrive “this summer,” according to a press release by AT&T CTO John Donovan.
There was no specific implementation date on the release, which was issued the day after T-Mobile announced its expansion and two days after Verizon made its announcement. Right now, AT&T has no LTE devices, which is no surprise since the network isn’t available yet. But it’s not even saying what LTE devices it will support, beyond the claim that there will be 20 of them.
The best bet is that AT&T will start with an LTE wireless USB air card, just like everyone else. These devices are already available from Verizon Wireless, and it won’t take a lot of effort by manufacturers to convert existing LTE cards so they work on AT&T’s network. LTE phones are another matter.
Mobile Phones Will Need to Catch Up with the Networks
Right now, there aren’t any GSM phones with LTE capabilities available in the U.S. Another complication is that any LTE phone that AT&T releases initially will also have to support HSPA+ unless it plans to restrict phone sales to people in Texas at first. The bottom line is that AT&T will have to get someone to engineer a handset that will work with GSM, 3G, HSPA+ and LTE. That’s certainly not an impossible task since such phones are starting to appear in Europe, but it’ll still take some time.
Sprint, meanwhile, is probably inching toward LTE as well. The company hasn’t made any announcements itself, but4G partner Clearwire has said that it will be migrating to LTE in the future. Clearwire is already testing LTE in Phoenix and has been for some time, so this isn’t a surprise.
Right now, the only LTE holdout is T-Mobile, which just keeps making its existing HSPA+ network faster and faster. The 42M bps theoretical speed is vastly faster than anything the LTE vendors are offering. But so far, T-Mobile hasn’t announced any LTE plans at all. In the short term, T-Mobile can get a lot of mileage just by being faster than the other guys. But it’s not clear how well HSPA+ will hold up in the long term.
Of course, that may not matter. AT&T plans to buy T-Mobile, absorb its users into its network and dismantle T-Mobile’s remains. The goal is to decommission many, perhaps most, of T-Mobile’s existing cell sites and use that infrastructure to build out its LTE network. The problem with this is that AT&T so far has demonstrated that it’s not able to handle the demands on its 3G network. How it will focus money and energy on building out a 4G network, especially given the billions of dollars it’s spending on the T-Mobile acquisition regardless of whether it’s successful, is unclear right now.
Ultimately, the good news is that 4G wireless in the U.S. is at least well on its way. This is especially good news if you’re a customer of Verizon Wireless. It might be good news if you’re an AT&T customer, but only in the event that the T-Mobile acquisition goes through.
Without that, it’s going to be tough sledding for AT&T. For Sprint and T-Mobile, the picture is less clear. Eventually, Clearwire may move to LTE, or given its financial struggles, it might not. For T-Mobile customers, there’s no obvious move to LTE in the picture, although it’s not clear there needs to be.