Mobile World Congress 2010: The Move To LTE For 4G

Barcelona—Two things are certain each February in Barcelona, when the annual Mobile World Congress tradeshow kicks off: standards will be at the forefront, as will non-standard innovations. We'll talk about the first today, and cover the second tomorrow.

Last year it was standardized data roaming rates across the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as a move to identify a single micro-USB power connector to eliminate the need for a variety of quickly obsolete power chargers.

At the 2010 Mobile World Congress, getting underway today, the primary standard being discussed is Long Term Evolution (LTE), also known as 4G networks.

In the United States, there is confusion about 4G networks, with companies like Sprint touting already-available 4G networks as replacement for 3G. Yet the trend for other U.S. carriers—and many carriers outside the U.S.—has been toward a standardized approach to LTE that will allow voice and data carriage across multiple networks.

AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, for example, last year both announced intent to transition to LTE, as the U.S. over-the-air television spectrum switch frees up a set of lower-end frequencies that have been identified globally as the frequencies of choice for LTE. With the U.S. spectrum finally clear, more than two years before the same spectrum becomes available in Europe, the U.S. companies are wasting no time re-affirming leadership positions in the move toward global mobile broadband compatibility.

"Since Verizon Wireless first announced our LTE plans here at Mobile World Congress last year," said Dick Lynch, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Verizon, "LTE has quickly become the global technology choice for 4G. We believe our work will advance by aligning with the GSMA’s mission and members to advance LTE throughout the globe."

Lynch's comment about aligning with the GSMA, the host association that had for years held Mobile World Congress as the 3GSM Congress, is key from the U.S. perspective—and the international perception that Verizon and Sprint were content to buck the global market's embracing years ago of the GSM technology used in the U.S. by AT&T and T-Mobile.

Verizon—fighting the perception that its phones could only be used in the U.S., its North American neighbors, and to a lesser extent in Korea, which had standardized on 3G CDMA several years ago—had used the past year to roll out "world phones" that use CDMA in North America and GSM everywhere else. Yet these phones also blocked the ability to use GSM within North America, so Verizon's move to align its LTE goals with those of the GSMA's global service providers will yield Verizon the ability to charge the lucrative international rates that AT&T has been able to charge.

AT&T, for its part, has seen the success of the iPhone translate into a need to work with European and Asian service providers for its iPhone customers, who often travel extensively abroad. The move to LTE, then, in lock-step with the rest of the world, provides consistency in international service—and probably also guarantees a continued exclusive relationship with Apple, who has been loath to make multiple (read CDMA) versions of its iPhone and upcoming iPad mobile devices.

It's little wonder that the likes of AT&T and Verizon are exploring LTE, both from a technical and partnering perspective: while the rest of the world has been dominated by 3G GSM, including a rapid roll-out of HSPA 7.2 Mbps speeds in 2008 that is just now occurring in the United States, the battle in the US between AT&T's GSM and Verizon's CDMA networks has dampened consistency of delivery in locations where partnering on tower placement would have yielded more benefit to the consumer.

Besides Verizon's alignment with GSMA's LTE push, the Korean service provider KDDI and China Telecom both made similar announcements today.

Qualcomm, the U.S.-based company whose technologies are often found in the majority of cell phones around the globe, also stands to benefit from the move towards smartphones, with their extremely high broadband data delivery expectations, while still allowing a certain amount of backwards compatibility to existing 3G GSM networks.

"User demand for Mobile Broadband services is today’s key network driver," said Andrew Gilbert, president of Qualcomm internet services and Qualcomm Europe, "and LTE provides a valuable addition for operators to address this demand, leveraging the existing 3G Mobile Broadband ecosystem, which includes hundreds of successful operators, vendors and developers already achieving significant economies of scale."

That mobile broadband is the driver is no surprise to Mobile World Congress attendees, even without the presence of the fastest-growing smartphone manufacturer—Apple, whose unseen and undue influence on the conference we will discuss in an article tomorrow. The push by AT&T, Verizon, and other mobile carriers in the U.S. to extract a bit of what they see as "excess" spectrum from television broadcasters is being exacerbated by the sizable data transfer requirements of Blackberry, iPhone, and upcoming Windows Mobile 7 devices.

The smartphone market, along with the rapid growth of "vanilla" phones requiring network connectivity in high-growth mobile markets such as India and China, means the number of mobile and portable devices on the networks could exceed 50 billion by 2025.

"The global potential for connected devices is huge," said Alex Sinclair, CTO at GSMA, who also serves in the role of chief strategy officer. "It’s more than just mobile phones and laptop PCs. It can be anything that has a mobile connection embedded in it such as a camera, a music player, a car, a smart meter, or a health monitor. Predictions around how many devices will be connected to mobile networks vary, but we expect to see up to 50 billion connected devices over the next 15 years, finally making the prospect of a truly connected lifestyle a reality."

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