One of the main themes of this year’s CTIA Wireless conference was Mobile Broadband. People just can’t get enough of it. Literally! Major wireless service providers in the U.S. have long been battling it out over whose network reigns supreme for speed and reliability. The race is heating up with the promise of 4G speed in our future. What was interesting at this year’s CTIA Wireless conference was to hear vastly different approaches being taken by each carrier. Whether you’re on AT&T, Verizon or Sprint, you can expect a different approach to 4G — and time frame on actual the actual deployment to this technology. Let’s take a closer look and see how this impacts your service and customer loyalty to a specific carrier.
Disclaimer: I previously worked 11 years for BellSouth (acquired by AT&T in 2006), and briefly on a contract project for Verizon. I presently do not work for any telecommunications company or wireless carrier, nor do I presently own stock from any U.S. carrier. I do, however, presently (and regularly) use products and smartphones from each wireless provider . This is an impartial look at how three of the top U.S. carriers are approaching 4G with their current strategies.
What was interesting about this year’s CTIA is how each carrier’s strategy to bring ’4G’ networks to the masses are so different, even if deploying the same technology. Take AT&T and Verizon. Both giants in the U.S. telecom industry. Both planning to deploy Long Term Evolution, or LTE networks. Verizon’s long been trumpeting the strength of their network. Rolling out LTE will be the proof of that pudding. It will be a completely different animal from their current CDMA offering (new equipment, towers, facilities, and spectrum). It could very well put Big Red in a huge winning position if customers — business and consumer alike — decide to ride the LTE lightning over WiMAX (more on that in a bit). Where Verizon is plowing ahead with infrastructure build-outs needed to start implementing LTE by end of year 2010, AT&T is taking a much different approach to LTE.
First, AT&T will continue to focus on beefing up their existing HSPA network. Secondly, Ma Bell will be selling Microcells to help you take advantage of WiFi bandwidth to help fill your need for speed (and ease up a little network congestion). Quite brilliant, actually. You can buy an additional piece of equipment for $150 and, if you don’t want to eat up your cellular minutes, you can pay an extra $19.99 a month to make unlimited calls from that Microcell. On top of your smartphone’s unlimited data plan. The best part is there are a lot of folks that will jump on the Microcell bandwagon and be more than happy to pay those prices to ensure their iPhones can make a call without constant drops. So…while the network facilities and backbone infrastructure is being upgraded (over the course of a few years, mind you) consumers will pay extra for additional equipment to be able to do what, you know, a smartphone is supposed to do: make calls and surf the web. But you’ll be doing it over WiFi if you use a Microcell. And (again) paying extra to do so. Truly brilliant.
Back to LTE. So AT&T won’t be too far behind Verizon with a commercial deployment of LTE planned for 2011. Think later than sooner. And it won’t be a ‘light switch’ affect, either. Major metro cities will be targeted first, likely over the course of a year or more, then a slow trickle across the rest of the U.S. That’s if everything goes well…which it always does, right??
Then there’s Sprint, who’s shunned the LTE route to deploy WiMAX. Sprint’s no dummy. Give ‘em hell over the past few years of customer churn or putting hopes on Palm’s Pre to pull in additional fanfare, but Sprint put their money on 4G technology that’s here and ready right now. WiMAX is already being deployed, and growing to more cities by year’s end. Sprint’s WiMAX is taking advantage of 2.5 GHz spectrum versus the 700 MHz LTE Spectrum that AT&T and Verizon will be using. Speedwise, WiMAX is supposed to be on par with LTE. But, with less crowded spectrum folks wanting 4G now have a clear path with Sprint.
Only thing is…customers care about devices first. Speed second. It’s true. Otherwise you’d have probably seen the Pre skyrocket and the iPhone fizzle when people first started dropping calls or experiencing sub-3G connectivity. But that didn’t happen. People are happy to surf on EDGE speeds if they can have a sexy phone. Will the HTC EVO on Sprint’s WiMAX network turn things around? It won’t hurt. There may be an initial uptick in customers. When all the fanfare is done, Sprint will need a wider selection of devices. That’s what has been AT&T’s winning strategy. Complain about the network if you want, but you’ll always find some damn good smartphones on AT&T. They’re GSM (more widely network, globally speaking) and they’ve got a phone type for everyone. Granted, when the iPhone exclusivity ends — and it will, but my bet goes to when LTE is more widely deployed, and not before — there will be an impact. I’d expect AT&T to continue to have the iPhone, but maybe some other LTE carriers (Verizon, cough) to get it at that point as well.
[image courtesy of CED Magazine ]
That scenario leaves Sprint out. The risk of bringing 4G to the masses first loses a bit of luster if device manufacturers find better sales putting in radios that support LTE over WiMAX. If Sprint can muster the effort to focus on getting a wider array of shiny new devices (HTC always makes beauties, and their Android selections will only continue to grow) then Sprint will have a chance…and a decent head start as we wait (and wait) for LTE to rollout. If Sprint is really smart, they’ll market the hell out of their existing 4G offerings, show speed comparisons against both Verizon’s and AT&T’s 3G and flood us with commercials showing off brand new devices running Android.
When Verizon has their LTE in place, it’ll be too late. Sprint has to push through now. Otherwise, it’ll continue to be AT&T and Verizon busting heads over who has the best LTE network and the latest/greatest exclusive device. So, as a consumer, what does this mean to you? Will you ditch AT&T or Verizon when your contract runs out and run to Sprint to take advantage of WiMAX? Will you bear down and wait for LTE? Is your choice driven by the commercial with the shiny new device or the network speed that it runs on?
One thing’s for sure, the race for 4G is on. Consumers are tired of waiting and tired of hearing about network congestion. Innovation is the name of the wireless game. Sound off with our opinions in the comments.