Verizon pushes fast LTE expansion

Verizon Wireless will expand its LTE network to more than 175 cities by the end of this year, the company revealed at the International Consumer Electronics Show that has also seen aggressive network plans by AT&T and T-Mobile USA.

The LTE (Long Term Evolution) network went live for commercial service last month and is now in 38 markets, reaching about one-third of the U.S. population, Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone told an audience at the trade show on Thursday. After adding the roughly 140 markets this year, Verizon will double its reach within 18 months of launch, reaching 200 million people, and will cover its entire national footprint with the new technology within 36 months, Melone said. (See Melone talk about the network plans on YouTube.)

The network news was somewhat overshadowed by Verizon's unveiling of 10 separate LTE devices, including smartphones, tablets, laptops and portable Wi-Fi hubs, that will go on sale within the next few months. But amid the deluge of cool hardware at CES, mobile operators have also been revealing newly aggressive plans for the networks that will link subscribers' new gear to the Internet.

On Wednesday, AT&T laid out a faster deployment schedule for its LTE network, saying it would launch services in the middle of this year and finish the rollout by the end of 2013. The carrier also began referring to its existing HSPA+ infrastructure as 4G, citing downstream HSPA+ speeds of 6M bps (bits per second), comparable to LTE performance. The LTE network will be even faster, the carrier said.

T-Mobile, the first U.S. operator to promote its HSPA+ network as 4G, said it would double the top speed of its own network this year by introducing a version of HSPA+ with a theoretical maximum speed of 42M bps downstream. (The carrier says its current network gives an average of 5M bps downstream to smartphones and 12M bps to laptop dongles.) The new technology should reach about 140 million people in 25 metropolitan areas this year, the carrier said. T-Mobile also said it would be upgrading the backhaul connections that link its base stations to the Internet, which is necessary to complete a fast Internet connection.

Sprint Nextel, which uses the WiMax network of its partner Clearwire for 4G, did not lay out any accelerated deployment plans for its infrastructure, which currently reaches nearly 120 million people. Clearwire, which is majority owned by Sprint, has been struggling to conserve cash and raise the funds for the next phase of its expansion. But on Thursday, Clearwire did release a brief video on results from its tests of LTE in Phoenix. Showing off its massive radio spectrum holdings, Clearwire demonstrated that it could deliver as much as 90M bps downstream and more than 30M bps upstream on an LTE network using one 20MHz channel downstream and another 20MHz channel upstream. That is much more spectrum than any other U.S. carrier is using today.

Clearwire advertises downstream speeds of between 3M bps and 6M bps downstream, with bursts of speed over 10M bps.

Verizon's Melone said real-world results have proven out his company's claims of between 5M bps and 12M bps downstream on LTE. Even on the edge of a cell, users are getting between 1M bps and 3M bps downstream, he said. The new technology has also cut by half the latency, or delay, in a connection when compared with 3G, he said. LTE users are getting latency of about 30 milliseconds, Melone said.

Network performance claims are becoming a key metric in carrier competition in the U.S., where there are few new subscribers to be found, said analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates.

"The U.S. market is mostly saturated. It only grows if they can give people a reason to buy another phone ... or to get another connection for a tablet or some other, similar device," Gold said.

Early adopters -- though perhaps millions of them -- will continue to dominate the market for new 4G devices through this year, Gold believes. But eventually, the average consumer will probably embrace the idea of multiple wireless devices with multiple data plans, he said.

"I think it will happen, but I think it will happen more gradually than most people think," Gold said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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