4G Timeline

With mobile WiMAX pushing from behind and revenue opportunities looming ahead, 4G likely will become a reality faster than originally conceived and perhaps even before it's needed. "The current mobile technology has some way to go over the next couple years to really boost download speeds to match WiMAX or come close to matching it," said Stuart Little, director of corporate marketing for Harris Stratex, adding that 3.5G and HSPA may be able to handle the job and that LTE will only feel pressure if "WiMAX really picks up." WiMAX is a wild card. Sprint Nextel is one of the largest operators to commit to mobile WiMAX--either with XOHM or the new Clearwire. "I don't see many mobile operators elsewhere in the world looking at WiMAX as their 4G technology. All the mobile operators are sinking loads of money into their 3G systems and LTE is another change-out of the whole access infrastructure. That's a big step."

Pre-LTE trials are under way this year and DoCoMo in Japan is moving ahead with pre-LTE rollouts now. The question is when carriers will feel pressured to evolve. "It must be remembered that HSPA+ with 2x2 MIMO will provide theoretical data capabilities of 42 Mbps on the downlink and 11.4 Mbps on the uplink with typical possible user speeds of each 10 Mbps downlink and 5 Mbps uplink," said Chris Pearson, president/senior operating officer of 3G Americas. "Thus, with a growing base of 3.3 billion GSM subscribers and great technology capabilities...there is no urgency to move to LTE." It still should happen sooner than many have predicted and "will be deployed in 2010 but should be considered as an eloquent evolution over time," Pearson said. Jarich had a similar timeline, suggesting that DoCoMo "wants to move early, maybe two years from now. For Verizon it may be 2010-2011. And for European operators, 2013 may make more sense. Two years from now we'll have some stuff up and running, especially with DoCoMo."

A lot of it will be based on the impact of mobile WiMAX. "WiMAX will have a reasonable footprint by the end of 2009 with LTE 18 to 24 months behind it," said Jim Orr, principal network architect at Fujitsu. "The U.S. driver is dominated by the dearth of an upgrade path for EVDO. Verizon does not want to spend any more money than absolutely necessary on a platform that has no upgrade path and will push the technology as fast as possible."