Mobile Sands

February 26, 2009

Verizon’s LTE Rollout – Lessons from CDMA

Filed under: 3G, LTE — Tags: , , , , , , , — AJ @ 5:58 am

There is lot of speculation in the press, among analysts and in the blogosphere about the timing of Verizon’s LTE deployment. This is unfortunate considering that Dick Lynch has actually provided very clear guidance.  In his interview with Sue Marek of FierceWireless he said, “…when we launch we will do what we did with 1xEV-DO and 1XRTT…” 

Verizon, under Dick Lynch, has been remarkably consistent in its process for deploying new air interface technologies. If one digs through years of Verizon press archives, one will find that Verizon’s EV-DO rollout followed the same process as its 1xRTT rollout.  At both those occasions and now, Dick Lynch was at the helm and we should not expect anything different for LTE.

As in EV-DO, Verizon has initially selected two vendors for LTE.  For EVDO, these two vendors were Lucent and Nortel. For LTE, it is Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson. This does not mean that Verizon will not have a third vendor.  In EV-DO, the third vendor was Motorola, and as Dick said in his FierceWireless interview, “The rest of the vendors will have another opportunity in the future. We will go out again in mid-2010 and look for vendors for the next wave of the coverage”.

As in EV-DO, each LTE vendor has been assigned one city that each is expected to get on the air in 2009. For EV-DO, Nortel had San Diego while Lucent had Washington DC.   Once the two cities are on the air, each vendor will be expected to work out all the kinks in its products, a process well known in the industry as “First Office Application (FOA)”. A FOA can take anywhere from 3-9 months, depending upon the complexity of the system and the quality of the vendor’s product.

Once FOA is complete for LTE systems, either by the end of 2009 or in early 2010, Verizon is saying that it will start building out a sizeable national footprint.  In the EV-DO case, Verizon announced its decision to start building a national footprint in January 2004. Within 9 months, Verizon had launched EV-DO service in 14 metropolitan areas and by Aug 2005,  it covered 52 metropolitan areas.  All these services were launched using EV-DO data cards.  If Verizon’s LTE vendors can wrap up their FOA by Q1’2010, expect Verizon to at launch LTE data cards in dozen or so markets by Q3 or Q4 of 2010.

The other key player whose actions determine the pace at which Verizon can roll out LTE services is QUALCOMM. Verizon cannot launch an LTE handset (smartphone) unless this handset supports both 1xRTT and EV-DO. It needs 1xRTT to support all the legacy voice features (tough to replicate on IMS) and needs EV-DO for data service wherever there are LTE coverage holes. QUALCOMM is the only company that can build a dual-technology LTE/CDMA chip, and it is doing just so. On Feb 16th, Qualcomm introduced its MSM 8960 3G/LTE chipset, and said that this chip will sample in mid-2010. Since handset vendors need at least 12 months from the date Qualcomm samples its chipsets, to build a commercial device, one should expect the first dual-mode CDMA/LTE handset to reach the market in Q3’2011.

To summarize:

  • Verizon is likely to light up two cities with LTE in 2009 and have meaningful national footprint in 2010. They have a playbook for large scale wireless rollouts and they seem to be following it.
  • There will be no LTE handsets/smartphones in 2010,  just data cards. Therefore, Verizon will continue to add capacity to their CDMA network at least till the end of 2010.
  • Expect CDMA/LTE handsets to reach the market in Q3’2011. 
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