The state of 4G in 2010

WiMAX this year, LTE in 2011

The transition to 4G services will slowly start to take shape by the end of the year.

If you were to think of 4G wireless technologies as Harry Potter movies, then the first half of 2010 promises to be like the time spent waiting in between new releases. You can expect lots of exciting trailers and teasers that will tide you over, but don't expect to see any real action until the latter half of the year.

By the end of 2010, Clearwire plans to have built out its 4G WiMAX network to all major markets in the United States and Verizon expects to be offering its 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services commercially in between 25 to 30 major U.S. markets. Additionally, the GSM Association is hoping that its work on Voice over LTE (VoLTE) will be nearly finished and that LTE devices will have the ability to support voice and Short Message Service sometime in 2011.

4G technologies represent the next stage in the evolution of wireless data technologies and generally deliver average download rates of 3Mbps or higher. In contrast, today's 3G networks typically deliver average download speeds about one-tenth of that rate.  

A 4G early adopter's tale  

Broadly speaking, users will get 4G wireless connectivity through one of two standards, WiMAX or LTE. WiMAX is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard and will be deployed by Clearwire for wholesale use by Sprint, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable to deliver wireless broadband. LTE, on the other hand, is a GSM-based technology that will be deployed by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Let's start with Clearwire. The company has commercial WiMAX services available in 27 U.S. markets covering more than 34 million points of presence (POPs). By year-end,  Clearwire will have built out a WiMAX network that spans all major U.S. markets and that covers 120 million POPs. So if your business is in a major metropolitan area it's very likely that you'll be able to access Clearwire's 4G network by the end of the year.

You won't likely know that you're getting your service through Clearwire, however. The company's plan is to build out the network and then wholesale access to companies with bigger brand names such as Sprint, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable. Clearwire is counting on these companies to aggressively promote its WiMAX services, especially since WiMAX is currently the fastest wireless technology available on the market. Clearwire's wholesale partners have also played a big role in funding the buildout of the network, as Clearwire raised $3.2 billion from its big cable partners as well as from big-name tech companies such as Google and Intel.

Text chart showing the different 4G offerings

"Our wholesale business is going through extraordinary growth right now," says Clearwire Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert. "We ended up with more than 46,000 wholesale customers by the end of the fourth quarter last year and we're on pace to do significantly more than that this quarter. We've got Comcast, Sprint and Time-Warner Cable as our active wholesale partners and we believe that selling through those partnerships will be the primary growth strategy for our business.

Verizon's LTE plans

Unlike Clearwire, Verizon won't have a coast-to-coast 4G network ready to go by year-end. However, it does plan to have its LTE network up and running in up to 30 major markets with many more to come in 2011. Tony Melone, the executive vice president and CTO of Verizon Wireless, says that the company has spent the past year getting its 4G infrastructure ready to go online later this year, including its antennas, backhaul and leasing work with tower owners.

From there, Verizon will work to substantially expand its LTE network all throughout 2011, as it plans to double its total number of 4G markets by the early part of 2012. By the end of 2013, the company plans to have its entire current 3G footprint covered by its 4G technology and to also expand its 4G services into areas that don't currently have 3G. Melone says that the company will primarily be using the 22MHz chunk of spectrum it obtained during the 700MHz auction in 2008 to build out its LTE network nationwide.

"The big thing for us is that 100% of the 700MHz spectrum we won in the FCC auction a couple years back will be used for 4G services," he says. "The 700MHz spectrum gives us tremendous propagation advantages versus the people who are deploying LTE in the higher spectrum ranges. 700MHz spectrum means that there will be fewer sites required and we'll have better building penetration."

The company is also working with device manufacturers to ensure a healthy device ecosystem will be available for users when the network launches later this year.

"So far, by being aggressive and deploying this technology before anyone else, it seems that the ecosystem has moved with us," Melone says. "So there are many chipsets and devices that are ready to go and we feel bullish about getting out to the gates early."

Early adopters of LTE will find, however, that the devices will be data-only at first and thus won't support voice. To rectify this, AT&T, Verizon and several other telecom companies and device manufacturers joined forces late last year to help develop voice and SMS standards for LTE. Last month, the GSM Association decided to adopt the carriers' profile for Voice over LTE in an effort to avoid fragmentation of LTE voice standards before the technology becomes more widely deployed. The association said that it embraced the VoLTE Initiative's IMS-based approach since IMS "supports all voice call service features such as call waiting, call hold and call barring."

Melone says that even if the voice standards for LTE are wrapped up by year-end, users shouldn't expect 4G voice services to be widely available at the outset of Verizon's network launch. Rather, the company will rely on a combination of 3G for voice and 4G for data services on its initial device offerings, he says.

"The technical capabilities for LTE voice will be there in the 2011 timeframe," he says. "The question for us will be whether our footprint will be sufficient at that point to provide customers with a good experience for voice over LTE, or whether we'll be better off offering 3G coverage for voice and 4G for data."

In other words, don't expect the 4G revolution to immediately sweep the land over the next two years. Just like other technologies in the past, 4G deployment will require a long process of trial and error, as well as hybrid systems to serve as bridges from legacy technology.

"At some point, 4G voice on LTE will become the norm," Melone says. "But we may have to start off with dual-radio devices.

Learn more about this topic

Clearwire exec shares WiMAX road map

Sprint to usher in the year of 4G wireless

Verizon confirms details of U.S. LTE deployment
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