Infrastructure: Network enhancement up; large-scale buildouts down - CTIA Wireless 2011 Scorecard

Whose profile is rising? Bolstering existing networks

While Mobile World Congress in February was all about LTE, with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) taking the charge, this year's CTIA Wireless 2011 show was mostly about how to make the best of existing 3G networks. As such, revving up data speeds and deploying capacity-enhancing architectures such femtocells and picocells saw a heavier emphasis.

Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) CEO Hans Vestberg summed it up best during the vendor's press conference: "EV-DO Advanced and HSPA+ are both developing faster than I expected. LTE is coming earlier, but we're also seeing the current generation of networks evolving faster."

During this year's show, Ericsson demonstrated EV-DO Advanced smart networking techniques, which are designed to provide up to 30 to 45 percent capacity gain in today's deployed EV-DO networks. Ericsson said the techniques require a software-only upgrade to existing infrastructure, with no change required for the handset.

HSPA+ was on the lips of many executives during this year's show. Kris Rinne, senior vice president of architecture and planning with AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), touted HSPA+ as a key differentiator for the operator as it rolls out its LTE network beginning this year.

"We're the only U.S. carrier deploying both HSPA+ and LTE," Rinne said during FierceWireless' Path to 4G event. "Why is that important? It's about customer experience. It takes years to build out networks. In the early days of LTE when customers move from LTE to HSPA, it will be a very smooth transition--much different than some of the other competitors."

Meanwhile, T-Mobile USA announced that it has already deployed dual-carrier HSPA+ that effectively doubles the speed of its HSPA+ 21 network to theoretical speeds of 42 Mbps. T-Mobile has deployed the technology in three markets--Las Vegas, New York and Orlando--with plans to roll out the faster speed technology in 25 markets by mid-2011. It also rolled out its first dual-carrier device, the Rocket 3.0 data stick.

While talk of femtocells was nearly non-existent during Mobile World Congress, Sprint made a surprising announcement that it now counts around 250,000 femtocells on its network--and expects that number to increase to around 1 million during the next few years.

AT&T's Rinne also spoke about AT&T's plans for heterogeneous networks. Understanding that LTE's spectral efficiency will only get the operator so far, AT&T is embracing small-cell network architecture in the form of microcells, distributed antenna systems and picocells at the street level.

"The LTE Advanced standards work includes many of the things required for heterogeneous networks," Rinne said. "We see exciting opportunities to enhance coverage and capacity through small cells."

To that end, BelAir Networks introduced a Wi-Fi/LTE picocell that can be used by cable providers and wireless carriers. It already has a Wi-Fi/3G picocell in the market. Greg Williams, senior vice president of business and corporate development with BelAir, said the vendor is already involved in a deployment by which a cable provider is wholesaling picocell connections to a wireless operator. BelAir has rolled out 25 picocells so far in that deployment.

Whose profile is falling? LTE and large network buildouts

Aside from Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) detailing the next 59 LTE markets it plans to deploy, LTE technology itself held a rather low profile at CTIA Wireless 2011. It was a dramatic change from Mobile World Congress when Verizon attempted to set an LTE announcement record with news that ranged from device announcements to M2M announcements.

There wasn't much more to say about LTE. AT&T Mobility reiterated its plans to roll out the technology this year. LightSquared's CEO Sanjiv Ahuja beat the drum for more wholesale partnerships on its planned wholesale LTE network, and announced wholesale deals with Leap Wireless and Best Buy.

Rural markets made the news when it came to LTE. One of Ericsson's (NASDAQ:ERIC) CTIA announcements was a deal with the NetAmerica, which has teamed with independent spectrum license holders that agree to build out their regions as part of a consortium. The deal with Ericsson calls for the world's largest vendor to offer LTE radio functionality, evolved packet core, IP multimedia subsystem and a family of LTE-centric home and small business gateways.

"It's a smaller deal, but equally important," touted Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg during the vendor's press conference at the show.        

The companies generating the most interesting news when it came to LTE were lower-profile companies. For instance, Actiontec Electronics introduced a family of LTE routers designed for the home market. The routers incorporate LTE, 802.11n, a Gigabit Ethernet switch, coax networking for satellite support and FXS ports for supporting VoIP/VoLTE. 

Chipset maker Altair Semiconductor announced that its 700 MHz band class 12 solution, which combines Altair's LTE chipsets and Alcatel-Lucent's (NYSE:ALU) LTE infrastructure, successfully finished a three-month field trial with a large U.S. wireless operator and is now commercially available. That large U.S. wireless operator is likely Verizon Wireless, which purchased 25 licenses in the band class at a cost of nearly $2.57 billion. Many of the country's smaller operators, including Cellular South, U.S. Cellular and Cox Communications, also own 700 MHz spectrum in band class 12.

Because of powerful RF interference from terrestrial digital broadcast TV and MediaFLO, band class 12's spectral efficiency has been problematic. Altair said its band class 12 solution demonstrated that it can eliminate nearly all RF interference, achieving high throughputs.

Infrastructure: Network enhancement up; large-scale buildouts down - CTIA Wireless 2011 Scorecard