Published: 23 September, 2010
This week's Goldman Sachs Communacopia XIX Conference has been the platform for US operators to set out their 4G stalls in greater detail than ever before. In the latest developments, Verizon chief Ivan Seidenberg has thrown cold water, yet again, on rumors of an imminent iPhone launch, while flat rate 'frenemies' MetroPCS and Leap have enlarged on their own LTE plans.
Talk of a CDMA iPhone has reached such a pitch recently that it has been almost assumed that Verizon will launch the device this year. However, if channel reports of Apple buying up CDMA chips are true, the phone could, of course, be headed for China Telecom, KDDI or even Sprint. Seidenberg's comments at the conference suggested a Verizon iPhone was not imminent, and perhaps lent weight to another recent rumor, that a CDMA/LTE version was in the wings. This would be unlikely to ship until late in 2011 but would undoubtedly be a breakthrough device on both sides.
Seidenberg was certainly more eager to talk about LTE than Apple and talked up the range of vendors he expects to create devices as the network expands during 2011 - this could be the point at which Apple will "get with the program" as he put it, but he also mentioned the more obvious partners, Motorola and Samsung, plus Huawei. Nokia is expected to have a push into Verizon at the LTE stage too, via its alliance with Qualcomm.
But for now, Verizon is playing it cool towards Apple, and Seidenberg was keen to insist that Android - which the carrier has promoted heavily in the US as an alternative to AT&T/iPhone - is highly competitive. Verizon's Droid strategy proves that, if a carrier offers a competitive alternative to the iPhone, customers will embrace it he said, claiming: "We don't feel like we have an iPhone deficit. We would love to carry it when we get there, but we have to earn it."
The CEO then confirmed LTE roll-out plans, to cover 30 markets and 100m POPs, including 50 airports, by year end, and then achieve 90% coverage by the end of 2012. MetroPCS, of course, has beaten it to the title of first commercial LTE operator in the US, and the smaller player's CEO, Roger Linquist, was also detailing build-out schedules. Phase one will be finished in the first quarter of 2011, and phase two at some point during 2011. This will involve putting LTE onto all the carrier's 11,000 cell sites. The carrier has access to spectrum covering 146m POPs and reaches 220m via roaming deals, primarily with flat rate rival Leap.
However, Linquist said he was no longer open to the often discussed idea of a merger with Leap, though other alliances could be of interest, including one with wholesale LTE venture LightSquared. He also said MetroPCS would look to refarm its CDMA spectrum for LTE at some stage in the future; implement Voice over LTE next year; and would handle backhaul by using flexible base stations to drive both CDMA and LTE traffic into the same backhaul pipe. This would be cost effective as the firm's backhaul suppliers offer a price curve, whereby cost per Mb declines as the amount of traffic increases.
As for Leap itself, CEO Doug Hutcheson has said this week that it will acquire the 17.5% of Denali Spectrum it does not already own. Denali was Leap's bidding partner during the recent spectrum auctions and the deal will give it control of Greater Chicago and southern Wisconsin markets. At the conference, Hutcheson said Leap would launch an LTE test market next year, having conducted trials in San Diego with Huawei.
With all these LTE plans underway, Clearwire could be forgiven for some complacency over having got in first. In an interview, CTO John Saw said: "Clearwire is setting the pace for everyone else", and would maintain its headstart. He said the WiMAX operator is turning on several cell sites per hour, a roll-out rate that "has never been done before" as it aims to double its coverage to 120m over the next three months. "Everyone else…is accelerating. We are working as fast as we can to make sure sites get up. Obviously, we want to make sure we stay ahead of everybody," Saw said.