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The 4G LTE Race is on with VoLTE Coming: Verizon, AT&T, and Clearwire

LTE is firmly set as the next major mobile data technology across the industry. Verizon is on track to meet its goal of LTE in 175 markets by year’s end and LTE coverage in its entire current 3G footprint by the end of 2013. An AT&T executive has stated that AT&T plans to launch LTE this summer in five markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Clearwire has also stated that it will transition to LTE. Also, Apple could be poised to shake up the industry. Read more for the details.

LTE Data

Verizon’s next LTE launch will be on June 16th and will add 21 new markets in Idaho, Connecticut, Utah, Wisconsin, and a major boost to coverage in Northern California in Marin and Solano counties. Verizon has aggressively been turning up new LTE markets since its LTE launch in December 2010. Verizon has been deploying its LTE service in the 700MHz spectrum which provides even better coverage than existing spectrum used for 3G in the 850MHz and higher spectrums.

AT&T is apparently feeling the pressure because an AT&T executive stated that AT&T plans to launch its LTE service in five markets this summer. The markets are Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. AT&T has been aggressively attempting to purchase 700MHz licenses from many sources including its deal with Qualcomm for $1.925 billion. Most recently these proposed purchased have been in Kansas and Massachusetts and now in Minnesota and Wisconsin. All spectrum purchases of this type require FCC approval which AT&T is awaiting.

AT&T is also campaigning for FCC approval for its purchase of T-Mobile for $39 billion. Part of this purchase would include a substantial amount of spectrum that T-Mobile owns in the 1700MHz and 2100MHz bands. AT&T intends to move T-Mobile’s customers over to its own 1900MHz spectrum in order to deploy LTE on 1700MHz in addition to 700MHz. This would be especially advantageous in urban areas where data networks can easily be overloaded.

AT&T clearly sees the writing on the wall as far as the use of mobile data goes. As reported by FierceWireless, “AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson recently said he expects mobile data traffic on the company’s network to grow 8 to 10 times by 2015, and that by 2015 AT&T will be handling as much data in a month and a half as it handled in all of 2010.”

The proposed purchases of 700MHz spectrum by AT&T along with the acquisition of T-Mobile has garnered a great deal of opposition, primarily from Sprint and other regional carriers such as Leap Wireless but also from many other sources. Since the acquisition of T-Mobile would make AT&T the largest mobile wireless carrier in the United States, many sources are concerned that AT&T and Verizon would be a duopoly and exert too much power in the industry leaving the other carriers, especially Sprint, with less than twenty percent of the market.

Clearwire, on the other hand, has not deployed any LTE yet but sees that LTE will have much greater industry adoption that WiMAX ever will. As reported by 4Ginfo.com, the COO of Clearwire, Erik Prusch, recently commented on LTE and WiMAX and made statements to the effect that Clearwire will eventually deploy LTE but is waiting for the “LTE network to mature” before it commits to LTE. He also stated that “We don’t believe that customers buy a technology. They buy fast and reliable access to a data network.”

Clearwire is right that customers want fast and reliable mobile data access. Although the industry is moving away from unlimited data on landline as well as wireless connections, I am glad that Clearwire still offers a form of unlimited data on its 4G WiMAX network.

Voice, LTE, and Text Messages

The voice market will also be changing dramatically starting in the next few years. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) will become the next generation of voice technology which will essentially allow voice calls to travel on the same LTE data network rather than on a separate voice channel using 1xRTT or GSM. This will work much like Voice over IP (VoIP) does now.

Services such as Google Voice and VoxOx are attempting to offer one number that can reach you wherever and however you might be available by either voice or text message. Sprint sees the value in this as a competitive advantage and has partnered with Google Voice to provide very tight integration with Google Voice on Sprint phones.

I have been a long-time Google Voice user myself and I see the clear advantage in being able to be reached in any number of ways. I have especially enjoyed the ability to text from a web or application interface on my computer rather than using a cell phone. Short texts work either way but long conversations through text messages, which are becoming more common, can become quite tedious on any phone.

When it comes to communications, both voice and text messages are clearly here to stay. Cell phones have supplanted land lines for many people and this trend continues to grow.

Apple’s Industry Shakeup

Apple, as well as some other strong players like Samsung, could be in a position to shake up the mobile industry in a big way. If Verizon, AT&T, and others all have LTE deployed in 700MHz or other common bands, what stops Apple from designing a phone that can easily work on LTE from multiple carriers. Currently LTE uses SIM cards since it descends from GSM ancestry but Apple seems to be interested in moving to e-SIM’s which would do away with physical SIM cards altogether. Response to the e-SIM idea has not been positive from at least one major European carrier but that could change down the road.

Nearly five years back I was part of a small county’s board of supervisors meeting regarding cell phone coverage in a very mountainous California county not too far from Yosemite. The goal of the county was to have almost the entire county covered with cell phone service in order for everyone to be able to make emergency calls if necessary. Two carriers provided service in the county: a national carrier and a small local carrier partially owned by a national carrier.

The supervisors were told by the different carriers that coverage was being expanded and nearly the entire county could be covered if some new towers were built. The problem was that if you had a phone from one carrier, it would not work on the other carrier’s network and no emergency call could be placed. The coverage areas of the two carriers were substantially different and “covering the whole county” meant nothing unless you had a phone from each carrier.

This type of issue is still prevalent today, especially in more rural areas, but could be solved to some extent by LTE. As LTE is deployed across the country and has penetration similar to current 3G service as we pass 2013, an industry heavyweight like Apple could design phones that would not be locked to any carrier and could easily move from one network to another based on whichever one has the best coverage.

In addition, WiFi could be used as another way to offload the data traffic from the LTE network allow your phone to work anywhere WiFi coverage exists, even if LTE does not exist at that location. A unified communications experience might actually be a reality where your number rings and you receive text message on whatever network, LTE or WiFi, you happen to be connected to. The problem becomes billing and the fact that carriers will oppose any way in which you can easily switch carriers.

The future could be radically different for unified communications but it will take the mobile carriers losing some control and manufacturers of mobile phones stepping up to put pressure on the carriers to accomplish this. In any case, the next two years and beyond will show radical changes in mobile technology and this will bring big changes to the industry.

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