LTE Advanced is the next competitive battleground for operators

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On the heels of Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) announcement that its LTE network is now "substantially" complete, covering more than 99 percent of its 3G footprint, it's becoming very apparent that the next competitive battleground for operators is LTE Advanced. Which U.S. operator will deploy LTE Advanced first? And what components of LTE Advanced will be the most critical?

When asked about LTE Advanced during a media briefing, Verizon's Chief Network Officer Nicola Palmer confidently said that Verizon will lead in LTE Advanced and will likely deploy carrier aggregation "where we need it and when we need it."

Verizon has been vocal about its expectations to deploy LTE on its AWS spectrum in the second half of this year, which sets the company up well for carrier aggregation to be deployed quickly thereafter. Of course, it's important to note that for carrier aggregation to work, the operator not only has to deploy software on the base station, but it also has to upgrade customers to new, compatible devices.

It should be noted that carrier aggregation is just one component of LTE Advanced, which also includes other elements such as small cells, self-optimizing capabilities, enhanced inter-cell interference coordination and advanced MIMO antenna technology. However, carrier aggregation is generating a lot of discussion among operators, primarily because many have fragmented spectrum assets that they need to combine in order to maximize their holdings.

Carrier aggregation is top-of-mind for AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), which has said it will test the technology this year and move toward implementation as quickly as possible. In an interview late last year, Kris Rinne, executive vice president of network technology at AT&T Labs, explained that the company will first deploy carrier aggregation in the 700 MHz and AWS spectrum and then in the 700 MHz and 1900 MHz. 

However, AT&T recently revealed in an FCC filing that some of its plans for carrier aggregation have hit a snag. AT&T claims it cannot deploy LTE over its 700 MHz Lower D and E Block spectrum until mid-to-late 2014 because the necessary interoperability test cases for LTE Advanced carrier aggregation are still in development within the 3GPP. The spectrum in question is the 700 MHz unpaired spectrum licenses the company acquired for $1.93 billion in December 2011 from Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), which had used the frequencies for its defunct MediaFLO service.

In the meantime, T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) is trying to one-up its competitors by hinting that it will also be aggressive with LTE Advanced, rolling out some features later this year. Exactly what aspect of LTE Advanced it will focus on first is unclear, but I assume that carrier aggregation will be at the top of the list as T-Mobile has fragmented spectrum that it needs to make use of. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) also has LTE Advanced on its roadmap and claims to have already commercially deployed some LTE Advanced features.

Perhaps U.S. operators can learn from the experiences of SK Telecom, which earlier this month deployed what it claims is the world's first LTE Advanced network. SK said its network uses carrier aggregation and it is already is selling an LTE Advanced smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S4, which is capable of carrier aggregation.

Historically, SK Telecom has been early adopter of new technologies. In August 2012 the operator launched nationwide VoLTE service and in May 2012 it launched multi-carrier LTE technology. Of course, the operator also was an early advocate for WiMAX, which it ditched in favor of LTE in 2011.

Nevertheless, it's an important market for U.S. operators to watch, particularly as they embark on some of the more complicated aspects of LTE Advanced.--Sue

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