MWC Preview: Andrew Seybold - LTE Is NOT Magic

The World Congress in Barcelona this year will be about a lot of things, but the spotlight will be on LTE (Long Term Evolution). There will be countless press conferences from vendors and network operators that will deploy LTE and there will be announcements about devices, infrastructure and all manner of systems.

Nokia Siemens jumped the gun with its announcement of a software-defined radio (SDR) that will, according to the press release, make the path to LTE less costly and less painful. Other vendors are in trials and the first final specification (a specification was never written) should be out in March of this year.

We saw this type of show when 3G broadband services were about ready to be launched--shows were buzzing and demos were humming. But as with any new technology, there is a long road to travel from demo to commercialization, and even from the trials that are underway to full deployment. There are many pieces and parts that must all work together and, of course, there must be devices available when the systems go public.

As you walk about the halls, I am sure you will see plenty of PC Card and USB modems that, it will be claimed, will support both LTE and UMTS/HSPA, both LTE and CDMA EV-DO, and perhaps some LTE-only devices (which doesn't make sense since LTE roll-outs, as with 2G and 3G before them, will take some time and will require devices that can call back to existing 3G networks for full coverage).

You will also hear from the network operators about which will be first to deploy LTE, how it will be deployed, and when. The two frontrunners are NTT DoCoMo in Japan and Verizon Wireless in the United States, but I am sure there will be others.

Part of the reason for all of the advanced publicity, pre-announcements, and announcements, has to do with the fact that LTE represents a huge jump in data speeds from 3G or 3G+ systems. However, that huge jump is dependent upon the amount of spectrum a network can dedicate to LTE. Most comparisons I have seen show that in 5 MHz of spectrum, 3G+ and LTE are fairly equal when it comes to data speeds. However, when you get to 10 MHz of spectrum, LTE delivers on the promise of much higher data throughput. LTE is designed to work in many different spectrum bandwidths starting with 1.25 MHz up to 20 MHz, which makes it ideally suited for systems where spectrum is tight today but new spectrum could become available in the future.

Another reason for all of the enthusiasm about LTE appears to be attributable to the belief by both the Internet and wireless communities that the killer application for wireless data is speed and speed alone. They point to the slow uptake of 3G broadband, which is finally showing respectable growth, and seem to think that the uptake of high-bandwidth wireless will be faster and, therefore, the return on their investment will be quicker. It remains to be seen if this is the case. I, for one, don't believe that raw data speed increase alone will push LTE to be adopted faster than 3G.

This belief is based on the wired world where speed was the primary factor to grow the demand for Internet access. People want to get to the Internet faster so they can surf, search, or explore faster. They want faster wired access so they can download and stream video content, and perhaps share it on a peer-to-peer basis. Since wireless data has followed wired in both demand and speed capabilities, it is assumed that this will be the case this time around as well.

It will be interesting to watch the growth of LTE in areas that are, today, served by cable, DSL and 3G broadband. LTE should be faster than all of them, and depending on pricing, it could be that many subscribers will give up cable or DSL in favor of LTE. This would, in fact, spur LTE growth numbers. However, if network operators are planning on this rate of fixed broadband growth, their networks will have to be designed differently and their per-cell site loading calculations will have to be modified. In typical cellular systems, capacity of a cell site is based on units coming in and out of the cell on a regular basis because the customers are mobile. In a fixed world, some of the cell site capacity will be in use all of the time so different criteria will be needed to manage the load.

LTE is the future of our wireless world for certain, but I don't believe speed alone is what will push the number of LTE users over 3G. I believe in providing applications that treat mobility and fixed access differently. When I am sitting in front of my computer, I may not mind surfing and searching, but when I am mobile, I want the information I use on a daily basis pushed to me, and updated in the background, without having to open my mobile web browser.

LTE will be successful and as demand for data continues to grow, LTE networks will have to be managed just as 3G networks are today. One way to manage them is to use devices and applications that are much smarter than what we have today.

Andrew M. Seybold, is the CEO and principal analyst of Andrew Seybold, Inc., and the producer of Andrew Seybold Wireless University March 31 at International CTIA Wireless 2009. For more go to www.andrewseybold.com.

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