There's been a lot of fuss and bother at Apple's [AAPL] decision not to include LTE support in its fifth-generation iPhone 4S, but the anxiety is misplaced as it really is not the cat-bird-seat time for the tech.
LTE isn't everywhere
There's some perfectly reasonable reasons 4G/LTE support in this generation iPhone didn't yet make sense: For example, LTE is not fully deployed, there are some technology and battery life challenges... However, for many the speed of the mobile broadband LTE supports make it an incredibly exciting proposition: 1Gbit/second on a mobile device? That's fast.
I spoke with telecoms expert, Vanilla Plus editor, George Malim, who confirmed the fragmented nature of international LTE deployment:
"Europe is fragmented because of licensing. The UK for example won't even be making LTE licenses available until next year. Almost without exception, operators will adopt LTE but we're not there yet. Device availability is a major issue holding back LTE uptake. It's mostly confined to dongles at the moment."
"LTE is in deployment in the US, notably with Sprint but the others are rolling it out. There's probably more deployments in APAC (Asia-Pacific) as a region than any other. In Russia the four major operators are rolling out a shared LTE network - which will be ready next year."
A July research report from ABI confirmed the international LTE challenge. "The biggest concern facing many operators now is the squeeze on available spectrum," said ABI research analyst Fei Feng Seet. "Regulators in certain countries have not yet announced any plans for LTE spectrum allocation."
But it's new and shiny they cried
That these are the facts hasn't hushed the howling from some pundits at the absence of LTE/4G inside the iPhone 4S. I think many of these critics wanted LTE just because it is new and super-shiny. They want it, but do they need it? One day, perhaps, but today is not that day.
As Gordon Aspin, chief executive of Cognovo, a spin out from ARM Holdings warned in 2010: "Technologists always overestimate the speed of technology adoption."
As of May 2011, just 12 countries had begun offering commercial LTE services, with ABI Research then predicting just 16 million LTE subscribers would exist worldwide by the end of this year.
Product design is taking choices
Look at it this way. When writing the road map for the iPhone product range, Apple's executives have had to strike a balance between cost, reliability, technology, utility and design.
If Apple had included LTE support within the iPhone 4S, then it is likely the product would be more expensive (additional components) with lower battery life (the drain of managing 2G, 3G and 4G network coverage on the chip) -- all to support a standard the vast majority of Apple's customers won't actually be able to use.
For most customers that's just not sexy.
Battery life? "LTE networks have more cells covering smaller areas so the hand off/signalling involved will drain batteries more rapidly unless carefully managed," warned Malim.
It really doesn't take too much to see that for the majority of Apple's international iPhone customers, more expense and less battery life is a pretty poor trade-off for a technology that's only really seeing big use so far in certain parts of the US and APAC. And, of course, any Apple LTE smartphone will also need to interoperate with 2G and 3G technologies.
2012: 4G hits home
2012 is when everything will change, because that's when LTE finally begins to arrive.
"The shift to 4G differs from the shift to 3G because of smartphones' capabilities," says ABI research director Phil Solis. "In the US, people are actively looking for 4G as a handset feature, spurred by heavy marketing of 4G smartphones. Sprint's success with WiMAX smartphones is an indicator of the scale Verizon Wireless and AT&T can achieve with LTE smartphones this year."
"I think LTE is very much a positive move for the whole industry. 3G was too much of a technology push but it's very clear people want broadband on the move and LTE will meet the requirements for people to do that," said Aspin.
There's still technical challenges.
Operators will deploy the tech using different frequencies. For example, US deployments will work in the 700 megahertz band while the majority of European deployments will be in the 2.6 gigahertz band.
Also in Europe, carriers are deploying LTE FDD networks, while China Mobile and India's broadband wireless operators are opting for LTE TDD.
There's lots of hope for LTE deployments. The technology fills the gap of WiMax (from which many of its technologies are based), while being made available via next-generation portable devices. This opens up all sorts of new business opportunities, for example:
In Germany, T-Mobile's LTE service, called "Call & Surf Via Funk," is priced at $53/month in districts where xDSL fixed-broadband services are limited. The end-user is entitled to a fixed telephony line and an LTE connection.
So, when will 4G be ready to roll? "Depending on market widely deployed status will be 6-18 months," predicts Malim.
"It will take two to three years to build into a mass market and I don't see availability as the critical factor," said Aspin.
Beyond this, Apple is in an excellent position to deliver something special when it introduces devices supporting the new high speed standard.
iCloud -- currently a hybrid off- and online system, will become ever more efficient as it is improved, and as mobile broadband becomes more available the service will become even more useful.
When the company meets this challenge, it will work to offer the best LTE experience in a device with a design and a battery life that sets it apart from competitors.
What are your thoughts? Speak up, I'm interested.
Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.