Wireless carriers should learn from history – generating huge publicity by setting aggressive deadlines for rolling out new technology almost always backfires. So Verizon Wireless, almost inevitably, has already pushed back the date for commercial roll-out of LTE, only announced in February, which will now reach its phase one target of 20-30 markets in the second half of 2010, at least six months later than planned.
The US' largest cellco adopted the popular tactic of swamping controversial news in a welter of often tedious detail, on a conference call this week about its LTE roadmap. As well as a less ambitious timescale for phase one of the deployment – in the 700MHz band – Verizon also seemed to be taking a rather more flexible interpretation of 'open access', which is mandated in its 700MHz spectrum, than the FCC, and open campaigners like Google, might have hoped.
The conference call was conducted by wireless chief Lowell McAdam, who pulled back on LTE timescales as outlined less than a fortnight ago by CTO Tony Melone. Speaking at Ericsson's recent Capital Markets Day in Boston, Melone said LTE roll-out would be all but complete by the end of 2013 (though without specifying whether this would entail complete coverage).
He promised "phase four trials" in 700MHz soon, followed by first commercial markets in the first half of 2010, and then "rapid deployment" in 2011 and 2012, in the 700MHz, 850MHz and 1.9GHz bands. McAdam was more cautious, looking for first fully commercial markets in the second half of next year, and completion of national coverage in 2015.
The cellco may still have a commercial test market in action by year end, but will apparently not fulfil its original goal of having at least one territory live (though the company had already stressed that this would be for fixed access initially).
McAdam said on the call, "I would say it is not a containment. It is really to start out slow, see what we need to do so we don't get ahead of ourselves in putting in capacity that we don't need."
This may not be the last revision of Verizon's timescales – the story is a familiar one from the days of the European 3G bubble. Launching prematurely with ill-tested equipment and a shortage of devices would be worse than delaying roll-out, and it is clear from the chipmakers' plans that LTE products will not be available until well into 2010, and until 2011 they will be largely confined to single-mode gadgets or dongles. Even Qualcomm, ahead of the curve on dual-mode CDMA/LTE, does not expect a phone to be ready until late 2011.
On the devices front, Verizon is seeking to maintain at least a measure of its legendary control over testing and certification of anything that gets onto its network – despite the open access rules on its 700MHz spectrum. Open access usually means that any device should be able to use a network rather than being locked into an operator, but cellcos do argue they must protect their networks, and their customers, by carrying out basic checks to ensure the products do not pose security risks or threaten to bring down the network.
Verizon, famous for its rigorous testing of devices to ensure optimal performance on its CDMA systems, seems to be pushing the definition further. McAdam admitted the operator will be more restrictive on device use than AT&T even on LTE. He said users will be able to move their SIM cards to devices that were not bought through the carrier, but Verizon will still insist that the device is certified before it will work with a given SIM card. AT&T has already removed such restrictions on unlocked devices, even on HSPA.
Most of the technical specifications Verizon will impose on device makers are in line with those of the 3GPP and its Global Certification Forum, but there are some variations, notably in transmit output power and receive sensitivity (to improve range and interference mitigation). This is consistent with the operator's tradition of putting network coverage and reliability before a race to the latest, smallest handsets.
To get a device onto the Verizon LTE network, a vendor will need to support its three frequencies (700MHz, 850MHz and 1.9GHz) and in many cases, CDMA too. The peculiar combination of frequencies (only mirrored by MetroPCS) will mean any gadget manufacturer is essentially designing products purely for Verizon, which makes it easier for the operator to impose its requirements, though it could also keep its prices somewhat high in the early years.
In other details, Verizon said (unsurprisingly) that it would run SMS via an IP version based on its new IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). It could do voice in the same way but did not comment on the vexed issue of whether to handle voice mainly with VoIP, or with hand-off to CDMA. It said it was publishing its requirements well in advance to encourage developers to start designing innovative devices.