Operators may not get LTE smartphones until late 2011

Although early mover Verizon Wireless says it will extend its LTE support from datacards to handsets in 2011, there is rising concern that handsets will not be ready, at least with sufficient choice and attractive formats to pull in users.

At last week's CTIA Wireless show, Verizon said it would activate up to 35 LTE markets by the end of 2010 with datacards, and move to smartphones the following year. This schedule may prove unrealistic, according to a research note from Deutsche Bank, which has sparked a wave of concern over LTE roadmaps. The note claims Qualcomm, the key supplier of device silicon to Verizon products, will not have silicon for LTE datacards available generally available until 2010, and handset chips will only sample in the middle of next year, and could take a further 18 months or more to get into commercial phones.

Actually, even these timescales are fairly tight for a wide area mobile technology, which will require intensive certification, interoperability testing, and carrier tuning, before devices can be let loose on the new and untried networks. And the worst move for a carrier is to launch handsets too early, when they are under-performing or unattractive to users, as Europe's 3G operators found almost a decade ago. It took several more years before there was widespread uptake of 3G handsets.

However, if Deutsche Bank is right, it will be difficult for Verizon to keep to its schedule, or at least to offer a competitive range of strong devices. And if Qualcomm, which excels at getting silicon for new platforms out of the door ahead of its rivals, cannot hit an early 2011 date for smartphones, then it is unlikely a competitor will do so either, certainly not one with sufficient scale to satisfy Verizon suppliers like Samsung or, quite probably in the LTE phase, Nokia. Also, Verizon will have to offer handsets that also work with its CDMA network in order to support roaming outside LTE zones, and Qualcomm controls the CDMA side of that equation and will be best placed to enable a highly integrated and therefore cost effective multimode phone.

Deutsche Bank wrote: 'We found a slide in their booth nailing down Qualcomm's LTE roadmap. They will sample their first LTE chips in the middle of this year. This should make them ready to ship in commercial product by roughly the second half of next year. Their first two chips are the MDM 9200 and MDM 9600. The MDM moniker means they are suitable for data cards. The 9200 will have LTE and HSPA, the 9600 will be trimode with LTE, HSPA and EV-DO Rev B. Qualcomm expects to sample its first chip for LTE handsets in the middle of next year.' It can take 18 months for a handset maker to incorporate a new chip into a product and test it, although in the world of IP and PC-style mobile internet devices, this could be reduced to a year or even less.