If it is Monday, it must be COTM! Scoot over to Carnival of the Mobilists at Andrew Grill’s London Calling to get the latest news and insights in the mobile industry. I found Chetan Sharma’s report on the 3G Americas Analyst Summit – especially his comments on LTE vis-a-vis HSPA interesting:
I think given the current economic climate, we might see the investment plans being delayed. Of course, with one city launch, some folks can claim LTE launch but pervasive availability will be pushed to 2013 and beyond. I think operators will try to milk HSPA technologies for as long as they can.
This business of “unlimited” data in its current incarnation is not sustainable. You have to be careful what you wish for. Mobile data usage is “here” thanks to smartphones and consumer awakening of what’s possible but I think the networks are not ready for a huge onslaught of data usage – esp. the kind of things we are used on the Internet like browsing, streaming, uploading, etc. – in large quantities. At some point, there will be enough users on a cell-tower that will start damaging the user experience. The incremental revenue doesn’t totally justify the investment required to support such a surge. So, what gives … we are likely to see more tiered data pricing and less emphasis on “unlimited” data.
I am not sure if there really is “unlimited data”. All mobile broadband plans (whether it is for smartphones or USB modems/dongles) come with monthly quotas beyond which Fair-Use-Policies are applied by the operators. So I am not sure what exactly Chetan is referring to here? In fact, as we have discussed multiple times in this blog, mobile operators are trying to go after fixed broadband providers and may be forced to raise the monthly quotas if they really want to compete. He does have a valid point on the huge onslaught of mobile data usage damaging the user experience.
LTE (the GSMA-adopted roadmap to 4G for GSM/UMTS carriers) has been getting a lot of attention of late. Verizon Wireless plans to begin network deployment in 2009 (using their newly acquired 700MHz spectrum) with full network deployment in 2010 and beyond. AT&T has also announced LTE rollout plans in 2012. Vodafone is also making the obligatory statements about rollout plans in 2011-2012 time frame – its ex-CEO, Arun Sarin has made snarky comments about Verizon needing LTE more than Vodafone owing to the inability of EV-DO to scale up to near-4G speeds like HSPA.
With the possible exception of Verizon, how real are these LTE rollout plans especially given the current financial turmoil? My bet is that 3G operators will look to squeeze the last ounce of return by upgrading their 3G/HSPA networks to HSPA+ (also called Evolved-HSPA or Advanced HSPA) long before they consider LTE. In fact, Japan’s Softbank Mobile has already chosen HSPA+ over LTE because of cost and backward compatibility. The reasons are as follows:
- No marked difference in spectral efficiency – LTE proponents talk about 144Mbps Downlink (DL) and 50+Mbps Uplink (UL) speeds. But realization of these speeds require available spectrum in excess of 20 Mhz. Now probably is not a good time to be buying spectrum. As the chart shows (courtesy: Qualcomm), spectral efficiency of HSPA+ (when MIMO is included) is close to that of LTE when you consider 5Mhz spectrum.
- Significant less Investment in Infrastructure – It is much easier and less expensive to upgrade HSPA to HSPA+ given that LTE is based on OFDM – a completely new modulation scheme while HSPA+ is still based on W-CDMA. LTE needs a completely new set of radio access and core infrastructure components – not only are the radio access algorithms different, the signaling and control protocols from the access to the core are also significantly different.
- Backward compatibility – It is simpler for a HSPA+ subscriber to gracefully handover to a HSPA network – the connectivity between RNC and the core (SGSN and GGSN) remains as before. Significant complexity exists for handover to be implemented between 4G/LTE and HSPA+ networks.
- Handset and terminal availability – Availability of LTE handsets may be less of an issue – clearly, the initial application for both HSPA+ as well as LTE is in mobile broadband (with USB dongles). It is reasonable to expect that HSPA+ dongles will be cheaper than those supporting LTE – given that a new semiconductor ecosystem needs to emerge that supports LTE.
I have to admit that I am slightly puzzled by Cox’s decision to go the CDMA route for their wireless network in the 700MHz band. Apparently Huawei beat out both Alcatel-Lucent and Nortel to win the business. Cox spent more than US$304 million on 22 licenses during the 700MHz-spectrum auction that wrapped up in March. It is also part of the SpectrumCo consortium, which also includes cable operators Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks and holds nearly US$2.4 billion worth of AWS spectrum.