MetroPCS will launch VoLTE in 2H 2012

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MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) has pushed back its planned launch of voice over LTE services to the second half of 2012.

Ed Chao, senior vice president of engineering and network operations at metropcs

Chao

Ed Chao, senior vice president of engineering and network operations at the regional flat-rate operator, told FierceBroadbandWireless that MetroPCS expects to make initial network launches of VoLTE technology by the second half of this year. During the company's quarterly analyst conference call last month, MetroPCS CEO Roger Linquist said the operator will have at least one VoLTE-capable handset for sale in the second half.

Those statements reveal MetroPCS has changed its plans since last summer, when Linquist told analysts, also during a quarterly earnings call, that the operator would introduce its first commercial VoLTE services in the first quarter of 2012. "We are planning to begin introducing VoLTE-capable handsets early next year to move voice as well as data traffic to our LTE network," said Linquist on that Aug. 2, 2011, earnings call.

Chao confirmed reports that MetroPCS is continuing to test VoLTE via an ongoing technology trial in an unidentified market.

The delay in launching commercial VoLTE service puts a hitch in MetroPCS' aggressive spectrum refarming plan as it migrates from CDMA to LTE. The spectrum-constrained company holds an average of 22 MHz of total spectrum in its markets, but that spectrum is split between LTE and CDMA air interfaces and MetroPCS is anxious to shift its customers entirely to the more spectrally efficient LTE.

"If you keep voice on CDMA and data only on LTE, which is kind of what we're doing today before VoLTE, you're not able to refarm. So, for us, it's extremely important to have VoLTE so we can get that traffic off of CDMA and get ourselves refarmed fully to LTE," said Chao.

The operator has deployed LTE across its 14-market footprint using its 1.9GHz PCS or 1.7/2.1 GHz AWS spectrum. Chao said MetroPCS considers 5 MHz to be a "hot spot" for providing LTE services, and he noted it has dedicated 5 MHz-wide channels to LTE in most areas, though in some markets the operator has been restricted to channel widths of 1.4 MHz or 3 MHz.

In addition to employing VoLTE, MetroPCS is looking forward to eventually implementing carrier aggregation as it tries to make the most of its limited spectrum holdings. In the markets where MetroPCS owns both 1.9GHz PCS or 1.7/2.1 GHz AWS frequencies, "over time we'd love to carrier aggregate over both of those bands at the very least," Chao said in an interview with FierceBroadbandWireless. "We also own 700 MHz Band A up in the New England area, the Boston market in particular, and being able to leverage carrier aggregation with that 700 MHz band would be a nice thing to have."

MetroPCS has made no commitments regarding the use of carrier aggregation and has also not publicly committed to upgrading its networks to Release 11 LTE Advanced, which features aggregation as one of its key elements. Yet Chao says the operator is keenly interested in employing aggregation techniques. "We will certainly leverage the technology where it makes sense for MetroPCS," he said.

The operator is not alone in eyeing aggregation. Kris Rinne, senior vice president of architecture and planning with AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), said one year ago that operator was "very interested" in trialing carrier aggregation technology in the 2012 timeframe, with a goal of deploying it in 2014.

In addition to enabling an operator to bring together its own disparate spectrum holdings, carrier aggregation potentially enables the aggregation of frequencies owned by multiple operators to support higher-speed mobile broadband service. Chao declined to discuss the possibility of future tie-ups between MetroPCS and any other operators.

MetroPCS has said in the past that it would consider buying spectrum or wholesale capacity from Clearwire, which holds 2.5 GHz spectrum, and even earlier indicated an interested in partnering with LightSquared before that firm's plans for a wholesale LTE network were crushed by the FCC. In addition, MetroPCS was reportedly targeted for a takeover earlier this year by rival operator Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), which is dealing with spectrum refarming issues as it migrates to LTE.

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