Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tripping the LTE Fantastic

While a lot of attention is being lavished on fiber optic build-outs and mobile WiMAX, the next dominant technology in broadband communications could be LTE. Would you believe gigabit wireless communications?

For everyone frustrated with sluggish 1G connections or the poky first generation iPhone, the idea of 1,000 Mbps at their fingertips while on the go seems fanciful. After all, there's just so much bandwidth coming off one of those cell towers. Or is there? Apparently, new technical approaches can boost wireless bandwidth a lot more than we ever suspected.

Nokia Siemens Networks recently demonstrated something they call LTE-Advanced. By combining a 2x2 MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) antenna system and an in-band relay station, Nokia claims to have boosted the bandwidth available over LTE to 1 Gbps. And who knows what the real limit will be?

LTE stands for Long Term Evolution. It's a technology being specified by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a collaboration between various telecommunications associations. The group's name may be the most limiting aspect of this work, as LTE is seen as a 4G or 4th generation technology and LTE-Advanced should probably be called 5G.

These "G's" are coming at us faster than CPU upgrades a generation ago. Most cellular broadband is now at the 3G level, using EV-DO (EVolution Data Optimized) and HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) with DSL-like speeds typically around 700 Kbps. EV-DO is a CDMA cellular network technology used by Verizon and Sprint. HSDPA is for GSM networks such as AT&T.

LTE was developed as a GSM technology for use worldwide. But, Verizon has already announced it is defecting from its evolutionary path with EV-DO and moving over to LTE for its future build-outs. So eager are they to get a piece of that 4G action that Verizon is expected to deploy LTE on their network as early as the coming year. LTE promises download speeds exceeding 100 Mbps and could be ramped up to several times that without having to wait for LTE-Advanced development. Those are fiber optic speeds or better at today's technology levels.

Why the big rush to switch protocols? Mobile video for one thing. Video is quickly replacing voice and even data as the "kill ap" for digital. Another is the possibility of providing speedy Internet service, also with video in mind, to fixed location business and residential users, as well as mobile. Clearwire is deploying WiMAX with that in mind, so now's the time to capture that market before they get too invested in WiMAX technology.

Both WiMAX and LTE are in the early ramp-up phase of their deployments. For users who want mobile broadband now, there is wide availability of 3G cellular broadband services for smartphones and aircards from AT&T, Sprint, Verizon.

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