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Big four US cellcos jostle for spectrum and 4G limelight

13 января 2011

The FCC may be dreaming up innovative new spectrum models, but for now the old norms, and the old battles, hold sway.

Nothing much changed with the new year - Verizon grabbing the spotlight with its LTE plans; AT&T and T-Mobile desperately trying to catch up in terms of fast data promises and spectrum holdings; Sprint/Clearwire hanging onto their 4G headstart and spectrum advantage despite rising challenges. And just over the horizon lurks LightSquared, which aims to pioneer a pure wholesale model using LTE in mobile satellite spectrum.

This venture has the best chance of stealing some of Verizon’s LTE thunder, later in the year, with analysts at Avian Securities speculating that it will spend up to $1.5bn this year on its network and go live in nine markets. The main supplier is Nokia Siemens, and analysts Catherine Trebnick believes LightSquared will also turn to Juniper for aggregation and core routers and Cisco for backhaul cell site routers and the mobile core.

While the market waits for this roll-out, Verizon has the LTE center stage to itself and used last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to keep up the momentum around its December launch of 4G services. It announced almost 50 LTE partners at CES, providing devices, applications and services. Indeed CES, once a sideshow for mobile players, this year became the grandstand of choice for both Verizon Wireless and AT&T to boast of their 4G plans. Both talked up their next generation network roll-outs, and backed this up with a swarm of device announcements.

As with the networks themselves, Verizon remains a step ahead of its rivals in terms of 4G gadgets, though AT&T appears to have a broader vision for connecting a huge range of products to its systems. AT&T had already promised 20 new ‘4G’ devices this year, but most of these will be HSPA+ rather than LTE. Verizon announced 10 products with in-built LTE, amid a blizzard of 4G news including new partnerships and the promise of an expanded developer program and new app store.

For both carriers, Motorola headed the line-up, with Atrix at AT&T and Bionic at Verizon. It will be delighted that its most vital customer, Verizon, gave it the CES spotlight, especially with the well regarded Xoom tablet launch. With the CDMA operator launching the iPhone this week, at least its Android partners were able to stay center-stage for a little longer with phones from Motorola, Samsung, LG and HTC, plus two HP notebooks with embedded LTE, an LTE version of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the Xoom. There was also an LTE iteration of the Novatel MiFi personal hotspot, called Inspiration.

Also announcing 4G devices was Sprint, with its third WiMAX/CDMA handset, the HTC EVO Shift. But its advances in 4G were being somewhat overshadowed, as the year began, by upheaval at Clearwire, on whose network its services run. First Clearwire lost its founder, the legendary Craig McCaw, from its board and then new doubts were raised over its current financing, as Sprint rejected an offer to take further debt.

At least Sprint and Verizon are well on the way to wide-scale 4G networks though. AT&T and T-Mobile are having to talk up their 3G+ activities while they wait to begin on 4G (and in TMo’s case, find a suitable partner). And all the carriers except the spectrum-rich Clearwire will soon need additional licenses if they are to respond to the boom in mobile broadband usage. As the holidays began, the FCC published plans to auction another tranche of 700 MHz frequencies, MetroPCS was exploring the purchase of licenses from mobile satellite player TerreStar; AT&T agreed to buy Qualcomm’s 700 MHz holdings; and Verizon was building up its rural partnerships for 700 MHz LTE.

Meanwhile, yet more 700 MHz spectrum - well suited to rural coverage - will soon come to market. The FCC is to auction off 16 licenses from July 19 next year. These were among the 1,098 700 MHz licenses offered at auction in 2008, but they either remained unsold or the winning bidders defaulted. The A and B Block licenses are in areas of Texas, North Dakota, Puerto Rico and other small markets.

Seven of the licenses were won by a bidding entity called VentureTel 700, which placed about $2m in winning bids in 2008 but failed to pay for them. The other area of 700 MHz spectrum that went unsold was the D Block, earmarked for a public/private network for public safety. The FCC has yet to finalize new rules to revive that plan and release the frequencies.

More importantly, Qualcomm is to sell its 700 MHz spectrum licenses in the US to AT&T. The telco will pay $1.93bn, even though the Qualcomm frequencies, which underpinned its aborted FLO mobile TV venture, are in a different area of the 700 MHz band from AT&T’s existing holdings.

The deal could have wider significance, since the firms will work on techniques to ease the difficulty of using paired (FDD) and unpaired (TDD) spectrum in conjunction with one another, to boost overall capacity. AT&T plans to use the TDD spectrum from Qualcomm for supplementary downlink capacity when it builds out its existing, paired frequencies in 700 MHz.

The carrier aggregation approach that AT&T will use to achieve this across its disparate 700 MHz holdings will be commercialized and marketed by Qualcomm, and could be of relevance to any operators holding both TDD and FDD licenses in the same band. In Europe, there has been increasing interest among cellcos in adding unpaired spectrum to their stockpiles, as this is being auctioned alongside FDD frequencies for LTE, but issues remain with interference and other obstacles. Qualcomm said in its statement that it would integrate carrier aggregation support into its chipset roadmap and “intends to market the technology globally”.

So the deal brings Qualcomm a close technology relationship with AT&T, something it was denied in the past by its CDMA heritage. The carrier said its purchase would “bolster AT&T’s ability to provide an advanced 4G mobile broadband experience for its customers in the years ahead.” Without the new work on carrier aggregation, Qualcomm’s D and E Block licenses (in the lower 700MHz band) had looked to be of limited use for AT&T because they run in 6 MHz unpaired channels, too narrow, on their own, for interesting mobile broadband services.

Another key plank of AT&T’s strategy to compensate for its relatively slow LTE progress is Wi-Fi - for offload and low cost additional capacity. It is expanding its hotzone project in areas of New York and San Francisco, expanding a pilot project that began last year in New York City’s Times Square, downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, and Chicago’s Wrigleyville. AT&T customers made more than 350,000 connections at the three hotzones, AT&T said, and in the third quarter of 2010, the operator handled 106.9m Wi-Fi connections on its network, exceeding the total 85.5m connections made during the entire year in 2009.


Источник: 4G Trends

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