Anyone who’s ever purchased an unlocked mobile phone has had to research frequencies. There used to be a time when most mobile phones on the market only ran on EDGE, and only supported 2 bands. America, to this day, mainly uses 850 MHz and 1900 MHz for GSM, while Europe predominantly uses 900 MHz, with some markets also supporting 1800 MHz. When triband phones came out, it was considered a big deal since you could travel between countires and still have service. For handset makers it also meant that they had to make fewer product variants. No more “hey Bob, let’s make 50,000 of XYZ for Europe, and 50,000 of XYZ for America”, it’s now “hey Bob, let’s make 100,000 phones and we’ll adjust our supply chain based on regional demand”.
Then 3G came, and it screwed things up again. Europe uniformly runs on 2100 MHz for 3G, as does most of Asia, and during the past year or two we’ve seen a few of those EU and Asian countries launching 3G on the 900 MHz band, but America still stuck with a 850/1900 MHz combined channel for data, if you’re using AT&T, and there’s also 1700 MHz for data, if you’re on T-Mobile. Triband 3G devices soon started coming out, it was actually RIM who was a major pioneer in that, and now Nokia is soon releasing a smartphone, the N8, that has support for 5 3G bands. That’s right, along with supporting all 4 possible combinations of GSM/EDGE frequencies (850/900/1800/1900 MHz), it also does all 5 possible 3G bands (850/900/1700/1900/2100 MHz).
Now we’re in 2010. By the end of this year, and most certainly during 2011, you’re going to hear about 4G. While it’s technically not 4G as defined by the ITU-T, it is the “4th generation” of mobile network technology. Now I used to think that 2600 MHz was going to be the default for Europe and Asia, and America was going to stick to 700 MHz, but I was wrong.
Last week the European Commission announced that they’ve chosen 800 MHz as a standard to introduce mobile broadband across the continent. They didn’t specify which technology operators should use to deploy said mobile broadband, so some will ask the LTE vs. WiMAX question, but it’s pretty obvious that LTE will win out. Like America, who sold their 700 MHz frequency because they decided to switch off analog television signals, Europe is in the process of shutting off their 800 MHz television signals as well. So far only Belgium, Finland, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Sweden have turned off their analog broadcasts, but the European Commission expects all countries to have their 800 MHz band free by the end of 2012.
What does this mean for Europeans? Depending on where you are, LTE may either be as close as 12 months away, or as far as 36 months away, if you consider how long it takes to build and turn on a network. ABI Research predicts that by Q4 2014 there will be 150 million people using “4G” technology. That’s globally. Pretty conservative estimates when you consider that Verizon’s LTE network is expected to reach 100 million people when it turns on at the end of this year. When taken into context of a recent survey done of the Finnish market however, that found approximatively 8% of devices connected to mobile networks were not mobile phones, but instead USB modems, it makes more sense.
Jou Yu-chuen, Vice President of Technology at Qualcomm said he doesn’t think LTE will take off commercially until 2014. He agrees with an estimate that was given by Ovum Research that says only around 10 million LTE enabled mobile phones will be sold, globally, in 2012. Asha Hemrajani, Taiwan and Hong Kong Head of Strategy and Business Development for Nokia Siemens Networks, says that in 2014 there should be over 100 million people around the world using LTE. Dean Bubley, who I interviewed last month, said “I do not expect LTE to become mainstream until 2014-15.”
So where does that leave you, the consumer? You don’t really have a lot to say about this. Sprint is going to launch their first WiMAX enabled phone next month, and it’s going to require an extra $10 per month simply because there’s a WiMAX radio inside. Never mind the fact that if you’re in a city without WiMAX, you still have to pay that fee. Verizon says they’re going to have an LTE enabled mobile phone out in the middle of 2011, but we all know that like the Sprint EVO 4G, it’s going to be a one off freak of nature.
It’s safe to say that 4G, for the next 2 to 3 years, is going to be synonymous with big fat ugly USB sticks that give you a mobile broadband experience comparable to your home connection, both in terms of speed, and latency. This shouldn’t upset you because you’ve seen how fast your mobile device renders webpages. Even the iPad, connected via 802.11n, on the fastest network possible, still renders web pages slower than your PC/Mac because the ARM processor inside is simply not powerful enough. I don’t understand people who want 802.11n on their mobile phone, as if they think their current 802.11g router is some sort of bottleneck that limits mind numbingly fast page rendering. For the few Americans, Europeans, and Asians, that have a broadband connection that saturates the peak theoretical 54 Mbps output of 802.11g, then yes, 802.11n is worthwhile, but don’t think the slow processor inside your mobile phone is going to render your website any faster.
In 2014, when LTE is turned on around the world, and supposedly over 100 million of you will have an LTE connection, then they’ll be handsets on the market with dual 1.5 GHz processors, maybe even quad 1 GHz processors, tearing through anything you throw at them. For now at least, 4G, and LTE in general, is just a peak into a fantasy world. Think of it this way, between now and the summer of 2014 Apple will come out with 4 more generations of their iPhone if they stick to their one phone per year schedule. That leaves a lot of room for improvement, especially in the performance department, and by then you’re going to look back at the iPhone due to be announced next month and go “wow, what a piece of junk”.
Sorry to break it to you, but LTE is still a long ways away.