Verizon planning customer LTE trials this summer

LAS VEGAS--Verizon Wireless plans to commence friendly user trials of its LTE network this summer in advance of rolling out commercial services at some point this year, according to Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone.

Speaking at FierceWireless' co-located CITA event, The Path to 4G, Melone reiterated the operator's plans to roll out LTE services to 25 to 30 markets in 2010, covering one-third of the U.S. with LTE.

"We plan to double that in roughly 15 months," Melone said. "The first half of 2012, we'll see two-thirds of the country covered. As we look ahead to the end of 2013, some 200 million pops will be covered. the map you see today for 3G will be our 4G map and maybe broader than that because there are some areas where we don't have 3G spectrum."

Melone added that the company's progress in rolling out LTE is in line with its internal expectations. A year ago, he was most concerned with how fast Verizon would be able to line up the fiber backhaul and required tower assets it needs to enable LTE. "We're actually ahead of where we expected to be at this time," he said.

On the network infrastructure side, Melone said the company is focused on completing its Phase 4 trials in Boston and Seattle. Now it plans to follow up with friendly user trials. Peak download speeds have reached 40 to 50 Mbps, but the average throughput came in between 5 and 12 Mbps. "We're seeing the kind of performance that is usually expected from a very mature technology," Melone said. That performance was achieved using 2x2 MIMO on a network not heavily loaded, he conceded.

To enable these speeds, Verizon is clearly focused on using 50 megabyte Ethernet backhaul based on fiber (a preference being its own fiber build outs) but is also comfortable with using microwave when its available and can meet the operator's time frame, Melone said.

Melone also countered arrows from his company's competitors. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, AT&T CTO John Donovan argued that Verizon's plan to deploy LTE this year won't give it a first-mover advantage, saying that Verizon is pushing LTE before it is fully mature. "2012 will be the time when you'll have decent handsets, decent quantity of handsets and decent choice of handsets," Donovan was quoted as saying. Donovan added that Verizon's CDMA-LTE handsets will be difficult to engineer and will have poor battery life, and predicted that the handset would be a "fat brick." Verizon plans to introduce an LTE smartphone capable of making voice calls via CDMA in the first half of 2011.

"That's not true," Melone countered. "We have a lot of confidence in the OEMs. The players we are dealing with aren't going to come to market with bricks that no one wants to buy. You will be pleasantly surprised with the form factors and battery performance when smartphones come out in the first half of next year."

Verizon does not have a concrete time frame for when VoIP over LTE makes its appearance. It's entrance will depend both on both the LTE footprint and the usage trends of the technology.

"It's very important we don't set up VoIP islands so that our customers are stranded when they are roaming," Melone said. "It should be transparent so the time frame with voice on LTE is really about footprint. There is no reason to add complexity to have voice on LTE in one part of the country and voice on 1x in another area."

Melone also indicated that Verizon won't force CDMA voice users to migrate to LTE. "CDMA 1x is a very efficient voice technology in the airlink," he said. "As customers buy 4G devices and services, we'll let that run its course. We can start shifting that in small increments...It's not around the corner."

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