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Wireless Operators Struggle to Deliver Broadband

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Verizon can claim more comprehensive 3G coverage than its competitors, but the caveats mount quickly when 4G migration is considered.

Credit: Verizon

Private jokes among wireless operators and handset developers regarding AT&T's December 2009 bandwidth crisis for iPhone users came to a screeching halt in Las Vegas at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. As operators disclosed strategies for the new round of Nexus One and Droid smartphones, as well as for netbooks and smartbooks with broadband connections, it rapidly became apparent that North American service providers still have significant holes in their overall broadband deployment strategies.

Limits did not take center stage in Las Vegas. Sprint Nextel provided a dazzling display for a WiMax router, while Verizon Wireless claimed its 4-Mbit/second Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network could send HD video to handheld tablets. The devil, as usual, lay in the details.

Near-term limitations stem from two explicit faults in service provider standards. First, the 3G Partnership Project's roadmap for LTE/LTE Advanced leave carriers a lot of leeway for deciding how to move from current High Speed Packet Access systems to true 4G services of the future. In addition, wireless operators are devising bundling and leaseback contractual strategies for offering high-end smartphones directly, but in the process they often create service models that hobble the end user.

Of all North American carriers, Sprint can claim a unique lead in deployment, tied to its support of WiMax as a 4G technology. While WiMax, a mobile extension of IEEE's 802.16 standard, was never intended to be considered a mainstream element of 4G, Sprint made it so by fiat two years ago, and accelerated support by investing in service provider specialist Clearwire. Although Clearwire intends to offer WiMax in more than 25 U.S. cities in 2010, WiMax's nature as a broadband access-point topology makes it a different type of technology than LTE/LTE Advanced modulation, which is layered on top of existing digital base stations. Sprint's partial answer at CES was the introduction of a WiMax-to-Wi-Fi router, Overdrive, which will allow one WiMax access point to serve five or more users via Wi-Fi ports.

Verizon was quick to boast in a demonstration at CES that its 4-Mbit LTE network would soon be boosted to 12-Mbits/s, and would be offered in 25 to 30 cities in 2010. Verizon CTO Dick Lynch promised a full LTE rollout in Verizon's current 3G footprint by 2013.

All North American wireless operators face a problem stemming from the vagaries of handset/netbook air interfaces and the maturity of service plans. Google, for example, offers a bundling plan with T-Mobile for its Nexus One phone, based on the fact that Nexus One only supports GSM at the present time. A Verizon plan for Nexus One, based on CDMA air interfaces, will be offered later this year, but AT&T and its UMTS air interface may not be a player in the Google smartphone realm, at least not in the immediate future.

While Verizon and Sprint point to tens of billions of dollars in backbone investment as their foil against AT&T, all wireless operators in the U.S. will face near-term speed bumps in moving to true 4G.

Loring Wirbel is a communications analyst in Colorado who edits blogs on smartbooks and FPGA technologies.


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