Feature Article

December 31, 2013

U.S. Cellco Battle over LTE Coverage, Capacity and Capabilities Intensifies

Cellular carriers in the U.S. are locked in a battle of one-upmanship, and that fight will only grow more intense in the coming year, notes Jim Guillet, vice president of wireless marketing at Alcatel Lucent.

Verizon, which in December celebrated its three-year anniversary of being to first to launch with LTE, today offers LTE in 500 U.S. markets. The company notes that means it’s available to more than 303 million people, or more than 95 percent of the U.S. population.

“With the most reliable 4G LTE network, the largest footprint, and deployment of its Advanced Wireless Services spectrum now adding capacity nationwide, the company is ahead of the competition in terms of quality, coverage and technology,” wrote Verizon spokesman Paul Macchia in a Dec. 5 blog. “Verizon 4G LTE is available where customers need super-fast mobile broadband connections, from major airports to many small towns through the LTE in Rural America program. And Verizon Wireless’ 4G network is pure 4G LTE, not a mix of 4G technologies.”

AT&T doesn’t seem to like talking about its overall 4G LTE coverage, as details about that are not listed in either the FAQs part of its website or in the boiler plates to its new market launch press releases. Instead, AT&T, which uses a combination of LTE and HSPA+ technology to deliver what it refers to as 4G speeds, emphasizes its new builds, dollar-figure network investments, and – notably – the fact that it’s considered to deliver the fastest 4G speeds in the marketplace.

Meanwhile Sprint today delivers LTE in 300 markets.

Sprint recently made news with the launch of its Spark campaign, which promotes the fact that the carrier uses three spectrum frequencies to deliver peak 4G LTE wireless data speeds of 50 to 60mbps.

“In 2013, we made major improvements across our 3G and 4G LTE network,” says Bob Azzi, Sprint chief network officer. “In the growing number of markets where the upgrades are nearly complete, our customers are noticing. Re-engineering our entire network has been a big undertaking, but now it’s delivering tangible benefits to our customers. With the announcement of Sprint Spark, the increasing availability of 4G LTE and the improvements we have made to our voice network, we’re full speed ahead for 2014.”

The other big cellular carriers in the U.S. are also turbo-charging their 4G networks, writes Kevin Fitchard in a Nov. 7 Gigaom story, which explains that AT&T has begun leveraging its PCS spectrum for LTE.

“Unlike Verizon’s forthcoming 4G monster, Sprint’s planned Spark network and T-Mobile’s recent doubling of LTE bandwidth, AT&T’s new PCS LTE network won’t boost the speeds of its current networks,” Fitchard writes. “The 10mHz configuration AT&T is using is only half the size of the 20mHz network it’s already running in the 700 mHz band, which means it will support only half the theoretical speed. But I doubt AT&T is too worried.”

That’s because, as noted above, AT&T already is the market leader in terms of LTE speeds. What the new PCS spectrum use for LTE at AT&T is about is new LTE capacity.

This idea would seem to dovetail with the concept of LTE-Advanced, a standard out of 3GPP that addresses how the radio access network can combine airwave pipes (which can involve a wide array of spectrum, even the stuff that carriers amassed during their 2G days) between small or macro cells and consumer devices in an effort to achieve higher capacity. LTE-Advanced is now in trials, with first commercial deployments expected in 2014. But user handsets will have to support this new technology for end users to benefit.

“Wireless operators have to pull every lever they can to address the capacity needs that mobile broadband requires,” notes Alcatel Lucent’s Guillet.

While they are doing that on the network side, on the marketing side cellular providers are expected to become even more visible in promoting how their services differ from the competition, Guillet says.

Verizon has been talking a lot about staging video demonstrations to show what can be done with video over its 4G network. In fact, Guillet says, Verizon leadership recently mentioned it will demo this kind of thing during the Super Bowl in February.

“With LTE and with some broadcast capabilities in LTE you can broadcast over LTE live streaming of video,” says Guillet. 

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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