Looking back at 2011: 4G LTE takes off

LTE quickly became one of the most talked about wireless topics this year, but before 2011 it was a term most consumers probably had never heard of. A standard developed by the Third-Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), long-term evolution (LTE) is a progression of UMTS/HSPA and GSM/EDGE networks. Just a year ago, 4G LTE wasn’t available to the general U.S. public and now, as we begin to enter 2012, a massive chunk of the U.S. population has access to it. 4G spread like a wildfire during 2011, so let’s take a look at some of this year’s LTE highlights.

Verizon Wireless kicked off the year with a handful of 4G LTE announcements during the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Two months later, in March, it became the first major U.S. wireless network to launch a 4G LTE handset, the HTC ThunderBolt. AT&T and T-Mobile meanwhile struggled to compete with Verizon’s 4G marketing and as a result, they advertised their slower HSPA+ networks as “4G.” That move no doubt contributed to the confusion surrounding 4G.

As the year went on, Verizon’s network continued to expand. The HTC ThunderBolt received praise for its speed, although it was clear that the technology needed to move LTE’s faster data took a toll on the phone’s battery life. Data speeds shocked reviewers, which noted that in some cases, Verizon’s network was capable of outpacing an average home’s cable Internet connection. Verizon maintained its momentum all year long and it blanketed the United States with its new network quicker than it had originally planned. Verizon now covers 200 million people in 190 markets with 4G LTE service.

AT&T wasn’t sitting still in 2011, either. It followed Verizon by launching its first LTE markets in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York, San Antonio, Boston and Washington, D.C. While Verizon offers a larger network, AT&T’s has been ruled faster in at least one study, but it’s not uncommon for AT&T or Verizon users to see speeds nearly 10-times that of 3G networks. AT&T only offers three 4G LTE handsets right now, although we expect that figure to increase rapidly next year.

Sprint lagged behind Verizon and AT&T in 2011, both in terms of 4G and overall data speeds, but it now has a strategy in place to switch from WiMAX to LTE. The carrier will deploy its own 4G LTE network next year and has promised to launch several handsets by the second half of 2012. Sprint has already hit a few snags along the way, however. It’s planning to deploy at least part of the new network in the 1600MHz frequency spectrum in partnership with LightSquared, which has been the subject of GPS interference concerns for years now. While LightSquared has argued that it already fixed GPS interference problems, the U.S. government still refuses to grant the company its safety blessing. Luckily, Sprint has a new 4G LTE agreement with Clearwire, too.

T-Mobile was the only major U.S. carrier that failed to discuss its 4G LTE plans in 2011. Its efforts were no doubt stifled by AT&T’s failed acquisition of the carrier from Deutsche Telekom. Thankfully, AT&T’s breakup fee includes $3 billion in cash, fresh AWS spectrum and a 7-year 3G roaming agreement with AT&T. Perhaps it can use those assets to work towards deploying an LTE network of its own.

The 2011 Consumer Electronics Show was just a sample of 4G LTE. Here we are nearly 12 months later and more than two-thirds of the U.S. population has access to the faster data network. We’ll no doubt see dozens of new handsets and plenty of other products taking advantage of 4G LTE during this year’s show, which begins in a few short weeks.

It will be exciting to watch 4G expand in 2012 as AT&T and Verizon continue to add markets and Sprint’s LTE network begins to roll out. We also might finally see a 4G iPhone launch in 2012 — we know that Qualcomm’s Gobi 4000 platform, which Apple has reportedly been waiting for, recently started shipping to manufacturers — and both RIM and Microsoft will see the first round of 4G LTE smartphones launch on each of their platforms this year.

blog comments powered by Disqus