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Is LTE upsurge a threat to Wi-Fi's future?

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The deployment of LTE across Europe continues to make progress--albeit at a snail's pace in some countries--and seems destined to achieve wide-scale adoption.

But for operators pushing to expand their LTE coverage or ready themselves for spectrum auctions, a study into what's happened in South Korea and Japan could bring fresh thinking to their plans.

First, LTE subscribers in these two countries used significantly more mobile data than 3G subscribers, according to the research conducted by Mobidia Technology and Informa Telecoms & Media.

This is not an altogether surprising finding, perhaps, with Mobidia reporting that South Korean LTE subscribers used 132 per cent more data than their 3G counterparts, and Japanese LTE customers used 67 per cent more than 3G users.

Of more interest was a decrease in relative Wi-Fi usage in South Korea, Japan and the United States. While the study accepted that Wi-Fi usage was still very significant in these three countries, the data points to a possible trend toward a decrease in reliance on Wi-Fi, suggesting an opportunity for LTE operators.

The research, which was collected in September 2012 from hundreds of thousands of Android smartphone users in the three target countries, also indicated a significant decrease in unlimited data plans, with an increase in larger-sized, volume-limited plans.

This sort of behaviour seems to go against the thought that LTE adoption would promote a trend toward unlimited data plans, but perhaps the premium pricing currently associated with LTE has persuaded customers toward a more cautious approach.

Of greater surprise is the shift away from Wi-Fi. Without more complete details of what's happening in South Korea--where the most notable downturn is taking place--it's difficult to say if this will happen elsewhere once comprehensive LTE coverage is available.

However, this shift could cause some operators to question their plans to install Wi-Fi to offload traffic from their cellular networks, accepting that European subscribers might respond differently to LTE availability.

Designing mobile networks has never been a technically simple matter, but understanding how customers then might use them is a dark art.--Paul