Seybold's Take: Hype sets false expectations for networks, handsets

Andrew SeyboldThis year's CTIA Wireless 2010 in Las Vegas was very upbeat, especially considering the economic situation. Our Wireless University, a CTIA partner event the day before, was standing-room only, and our 20th annual Wireless Dinner was filled to capacity. The keynotes and panel sessions were well attended and there was a constant buzz in the show floor aisles and the press room.

The hype surrounding LTE was practically everywhere. There were demos of LTE at 50 Mbps and higher, once again setting false expectations, but there were also discussions of what we will really see in the way of LTE speeds and capacity once it is deployed. The second day, I moderated a panel made up of CTOs from major equipment manufacturers as well as Verizon, which is rolling out LTE in the United States. When I asked about data speeds and capacity in a 6X6 and 11X11 swath of spectrum, I got some honest answers based on trial systems and what Verizon is finding in the field. The speeds we can expect for LTE (at least the version being deployed today) will be between 8 Mbps and 20 Mbps down to the devices and between 2 Mbps and 4 Mbps up.

The CTOs on the panel were careful to set expectations at realistic levels. Even with quality of service and other LTE attributes, the sub-20 Mbps numbers will be what we, as customers, will experience. The point was also made that these numbers are based on a single sector (most cell sites have three 120-degree sectors), and as with all wireless bandwidth, the total capacity of a cell sector is shared bandwidth, meaning that customers in the same cell sector will share the total data capacity of that sector. If too many are streaming video, data speeds will be lower, but in general, data speeds and capacity will be far greater than in the 3G world.

Other hype on the show floor and at some press briefings had to do with new smartphones. Almost every handset vendor and network operator was touting new touchscreen devices. This included Sprint Nextel, which made a big deal out of introducing its first "4G" handset that is made by HTC. This handset, called the HTC Evo 4G, is capable of both 3G and 4G (WiMAX) and, according to Sprint, sets the bar for the other network operators. I have to admit I was underwhelmed since it is a standalone device--it does not come with any astounding software or way to personalize it other than on the phone itself. Yet it is being touted as a competitor to the iPhone.

You would think that the handset/network community would have recognized why the BlackBerry and iPhone are top sellers--they are more than merely handsets. The companies behind them have created complete ecosystems surrounding the devices. You can personalize them via the Web, manage them via the Web, access storefronts for content over the Internet or direct to the device, and the user experience is complete right out of the box. The Sprint phone is simply a phone, without any real support for it in the way of software. Yes, it is an Android-based phone, but that simply means you have access to the Android store, not that you can replicate the BlackBerry or iPhone experience.

The Samsung Galaxy is another smartphone I spent some time with at the show. It, too, is a standalone phone based on Android, but it is the best implementation of Android I have seen so far. There is a daily screen that can include a recap of your calendar, email, to-do list, stocks, weather, or almost anything else you need to check at a glance, and the user interface is clean and easy to use. I think that when it does come to the United States, this phone will be a winner. Samsung was being very cagey about the phone and wouldn't even talk about what networks it will support. However, in discussions with Samsung representatives, we learned that it will be introduced first in Australia, and that it is designed to work in most countries. This means it is a GSM/HSPA device, which narrows the U.S. network options to AT&T or T-Mobile. Since T-Mobile's HSPA network is on AWS spectrum and AT&T's HSPA network is on 850 MHz or 1900 MHz, my bet is the phone is headed to AT&T.

I believe the most significant characteristic of the show was that the industry is no longer made up of only wireless companies; it now includes Disney, Google, Yahoo and many others that understand how important wireless transport is to their content and services. It is also clear that this industry is growing so rapidly partly due to partnerships and alliances, but primarily because today's applications are making our smart devices smarter and providing access to things we want and need while out and about.

In the early 1990s, many writers were trying to predict which year would be the year of wireless data. These types of articles are no longer being written because wireless services, including data, are here to stay and are being used by virtually everyone in the world. The focus now should be on how to make it even easier for customers to determine the best device and best set of applications for their own needs. The assumption is that wireless broadband is here and becoming faster. The trick now is to make it smarter and easier.

Andrew M. Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.