Will LTE Crumble Too?
One of the awesome things about mobile technology today is that most of us have been around long enough to witness several generations of its evolution. We’ve seen mobile phones progress from outsized boxes with 4-line monochrome LCDs, to tiny clamshells with blue backlights and internal antennas, back into outsized boxes- now with HD displays and internals that beat out some notebook computers.
But the evolution we’ve followed for years isn’t confined to handheld hardware. The networks that fuel the little packages of future-tech we carry in our pockets have undergone their own sweeping overhauls, graduating from generation to generation on a geographic scale that’s truly international. When I bought my first mobile phone, here in America, digital technology was just beginning to replace analog on a wide scale. In my case, lashed as I was to a U.S. network, 1xRTT CDMA was the name of the game … and it stayed that way through a few minor upgrades for several years, until the big debut of “3G” speeds with 1x-EvDO, and its enhancement a few years later with EvDO Rev.A.
Of course, across the great CDMA-GSM divide, a similar evolution was taking place on America’s more global-friendly carriers, AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless (now combined under the AT&T brand) and T-Mobile USA. From GSM to EDGE to “Fine EDGE” to all the various flavors of HSPA, the evolution through all the levels of globetrotter-edition 3G kept rough pace with its CDMA counterpart.
Experiencing this gradual evolution of the communications landscape firsthand has been incredibly fun. Downloading music tracks -and even full albums- at acceptable speeds for the first time over Sprint’s EvDO-based “Power Vision” was quite a thrill, but it was just a glimpse into what would become possible with LTE.
I got my first taste of LTE back in January via my then-new Verizon Wireless Galaxy Nexus LTE, and it absolutely blew me away. I’d experienced a taste of “4G” speeds via Sprint’s short-lived WiMAX offering, but this was something else entirely. Back in those days, with very few other customers carrying 4G-capable devices, the network was explosively fast. Apps seemed to install before they were even finished downloading; streaming apps were insanely fast; speed tests showed throughput faster than what my cable-based ISP gave me at home. Now we’re cooking with gas, I thought.
In the intervening months, as hordes of users piled on to the new LTE network, those astronomical speed figures dropped somewhat. Verizon, so eager to relieve the strain from its overcrowded 3G network that it actively sold against the iPhone, was filling the available 4G spectrum with new customers as fast as it possibly could.
I don’t mean to suggest that the drop in throughput has been crippling, or even terribly significant; despite months spent loading up their respective LTE networks with hundreds of thousands of customers, both AT&T and Verizon -the two LTE vendors in my area- still provide outstanding data speeds on their 4G networks. For proof, look no further than our reviews of the AT&T-powered Atrix HD and Verizon’s Droid RAZR M.
But after a few cycles within any environment, you begin to see patterns – especially when they’re as predictable as these. Specifically: new technology ages, becomes overloaded, is replaced by newer technology. Newer technology is awesome, becomes popular, then becomes overloaded as well, is less awesome. Newer-still technology arrives on the scene, becomes popular … etc.
So at the dawn of a new age in mobile telecommunications, when LTE technology is delivering speeds and capabilities over and above anything we’ve seen before, it helps to take a step back. To look down the road, past the short-term giddiness and complacency, and see how long we’ve got before things take a turn south. After all, 3G technology in the United States was still a fairly new addition to the landscape when the iPhone 3G came along and millions of users so brutally bludgeoned AT&T’s network that even making a voice call was difficult in some of America’s more-populous cities. With the recent launch of the iPhone 5 on all three American LTE networks, and the surging popularity of other 4G devices like the Samsung Galaxy S III, this question isn’t at all academic.
So sure, at some point, LTE will cave to increasing demand. How long do we have, though, before LTE succumbs to the rigors of time to become the next big piece of yesterday’s news? Quite a while, actually; it seems “Long Term Evolution” isn’t a misnomer after all. Here’s why.
Earlier this year, Verizon Wireless warned that demand will start outstripping supply in some of their LTE markets by next year. Bill Stone, Verizon’s executive director of network strategy, said in a forecast filing quoted by FierceWireless that “By year-end 2015 our LTE data traffic is projected to be 5 times the peak data traffic ever carried on our 3G EV-DO network. The impact of that growth rate compounds, resulting in a more than 20-fold increase in LTE data traffic from year-end 2011 to year-end 2015.”
That’s an interesting piece of gloom-and-doom forecasting, and it may well be true. But that quote comes from a filing Verizon made in part to ensure a successful bid on some AWS spectrum then being auctioned off by SpectrumCo. That’s not to say the assertion of increased demand is necessarily suspect; just that it’s colored somewhat.
For its part, LTE is a much more efficient standard. As stated by Motorola in a white paper from way back in 2007, “The combination of LTE’s increased spectral efficiency and flexibility, added capacity and simpler network architecture should offer a very cost effective value proposition. For example, each [LTE] cell will support up to four times the data and voice capacity when compared to HSxPA Release 6.”
Four times as efficient is quite a bump; even if real-world scenarios reduce that by a quarter or even half in some implementations, we’re still talking a doubly-efficient network compared to the last one, allowing much more room for the ballooning masses of data consumers to spread out.
It’s Cheaper For the Carriers
That white paper goes on to say that “Combined with the improved coverage resulting from the possible deployment in low frequency bands and the use of advanced antenna systems, LTE networks will provide service providers with a significant improvement on cost per bit delivered.”
That’s an opinion shared by Kevin Fitchard over at GigaOM, who in a piece discussing the iPhone 5’s impact on the marketplace said “The simple fact is that LTE is a much more efficient way of delivering mobile data than its HSPA and EV-DO predecessors. There’s much attention focused on the speed of LTE networks, and while 10- to 20-Mbps connections are nothing to scoff at, the … value of LTE is its ability to deliver a bit of data far more cheaply than previous-generation technology.”
Long-term speculation aside, any technology that allows carriers to provide service more cheaply is going to be one the carriers push aggressively. That’s a win for customers insofar as speed and scope of rollout, of course, but it also means the providers are going to make a big effort to make the standard work. That’s usually the case for new network technology, but not always: witness the trials and tribulations of the aforementioned Sprint-WiMAX flirtation.
The World Today Is Different
Yesterday’s carriers weren’t prepared for the onslaught of data usage brought about by the iPhone and other smartphones because they existed in a different world, an earlier form of the marketplace where the real money was in offering voice minutes and data was an afterthought that cost $15 a month for all-you-could-eat access.
That’s not the world we live in anymore, and the carriers know that. We’ve seen evidence of that everywhere in recent weeks, with providers beefing up their coverage in many markets ahead of the iPhone 5 unveiling. And as we’ve already touched on, it’s not just coverage, but capacity that’s being bolstered.
That kind of preparedness is something that only comes from years of screwing up, or watching others screw up, and learning from those mistakes. It’s the kind of preparedness I saw reflected in the confident calm of the AT&T network engineers when they took me on a tour of their huge indoor network inside the TD Bank Garden in Boston, and it’s what I expect is reflected in (or at least aspired to) by everyone working behind-the-scenes at Verizon and Sprint as well.
The carriers know the score these days; data is absolutely the future, to the point where the data backbone is soon going to be carrying voice calls as well. Operators have bet big on LTE, to the point where it’s becoming the first real global standard, to an extent. Not only do they know it’s the way forward for now; they know that they need to make it work as the new foundation of a data-dominated future. And if they want to keep raking in the dough, they’re going to find a way to do just that.
Verizon forecast quote: FierceWireless
LTE protocol information source (PDF Link): Motorola
LTE effect on market speculation source: GigaOM
Expanded LTE coverage areas info: Macrumors