THE WRAP: LTE networks gather pace; Asia tipped for the top

LTE stole the ‘most featured’ crown this week, with a host of announcements covering Europe and Asia Pacific coming from the Mobile Asia Congress in Hong Kong. Fiber wasn’t left behind, though, with rural rollouts in France and the UK lifted by deals involving incumbent carriers.
Hutchison 3G Austria kicked off the LTE announcements, revealing it will light its domestic network for 200,000 subscribers in capital Vienna today [Friday]. The 2.6GHz network was built by ZTE, and the operator aims to cover 25% of Austria’s population within 18 months.
O2 staked a claim as the first UK operator to launch an LTE network, after kicking off a trial of the technology with 1,000 Londoners. Once fully deployed, the network will comprise 25 base stations operating in 2.6GHz.
Japanese carrier Softbank is also getting in on the LTE act, detailing plans to launch commercial services early 2012 and cover 92% of the population by end-2012. A pre-commercial network went live in three cities on November 1.
China Mobile’s LTE launch will come hot on the heels of Softbank’s. The Chinese operator aims to complete a second round of testing by June, which will pave the way for a full service launch.
Bill Huang, general manager of China Mobile Research Institute, predicted the number of live networks will grow from three at end-2011 to ten by end-2012, and that a mass market of compliant devices will emerge over the next twelve months.
Despite the rush on LTE network announcements, analysts this week issued conflicting forecasts on likely number of subscribers the new technology will attract. IHS iSuppli reckons 11.6 million users will be signed up by the year-end, and 744.2 million in 2015. Rival Maravedis states the figure stood at 6.25 million at end 3Q11, and will hit just 448 million by 2016.
The bulk of those subscribers look set to be in Asia Pacific countries, figures from the GSM Association (GSMA) show.
The industry group predicts the region will home almost half (11 billion) of the world’s connected devices by 2020, 5.6 billion of which will be mobile devices. In contrast, Europe is tipped to account for 19% of the market by the same date.
Heavy capex investments by Asian operators over the past decade is paying similar dividends in terms of subscriber numbers. Separate GSMA predictions reveal the region will account for three billion mobile connections by 1Q12 – again roughly half the global total.
While total penetration in the region now stands at 78%, the Association notes China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have plenty of room for growth, with penetration at, or below, 60%.
Emerging markets are tipped to be the saviors of global handset sales in 4Q11, offsetting lower sales in Western Europe, Gartner predicts.
Back in Europe, fiber was the technology of the day – specifically rural deployments.
France Telecom agreed an infrastructure sharing deal with rival SFR covering 9.8 million rural homes. The agreement – France Telecom’s second following a similar deal with Iliad Group in July – includes a commitment to purchase wholesale services off SFR within five years.
UK incumbent BT revealed it will launch its physical infrastructure access services by end-November, following a successful trial with Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe that saw fiber to the premise delivered via ducts and poles operated by Openreach, BT’s infrastructure arm.
Fujitsu is the first firm to deliver services using the approach, which has been mandated by regulator Ofcom.
And Norway-headquartered carrier Telenor took all the talk of LTE and smartphones on-board, revealing an own-brand app store for Google’s Android operating system that offers up to 50 localized applications.
Subscribers will be presented with the Telenor-branded shelf when they open Android Marketplace, and the operator has established direct billing for the services on offer.

The store will go live in Thailand, Malaysia, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark in 1Q12, with India, Bangladesh, Serbia, Montenegro and Norway – Telenor’s remaining global markets – will be hooked up later in the year.