VZW gains edge in global LTE race

Verizon Wireless’ (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD)chances of launching the world’s first long-term evolution (LTE) network just improved. The first operatorto launch a 3G network, NTT DoCoMo (NYSE:DCM) announced today that it will launch commercial 4Gservices in the final month of 2010. Verizon hasn’t given exact dates for its owndeployment in 2010, except to say will launch the service commercially in 25 to 30 markets in the second half of the year. VZW might be planning a grand unveiling at the end of the year, turning on 100 million pops of network coverage in one fell swoop–and Verizon certainly isn’t opposed to theatrics–but it’s much more likely it will gradually roll the service out throughout the latter half of the year, beating NTT DoCoMo to punch in the process.

VZW doesn’t have a the trophyin the bag, though, as the Scandinavian operator are also jockeying for the lead. TeliaSonera was the first LTE operator to announce a commercial contract, and it was the first to claim a live LTE network in June. And though its deployment is much smaller than Verizon’s, coveringonly thecapital cities Oslo and Stockholm, its timeline is more aggressive, targeting the first half of next year for commercial launch. Telenor and Tele2 have jumped into race, announcing plans to build a joint LTE network in Sweden by the end of 2010. VZW even faces a possible spoiler at home. Fellow CDMA operator and 700 MHz-license holder MetroPCS has promised to deliver LTE in the same timeframe as Verizon.

According to TechCrunch, VZW is making a big push torollout LTEearlier–possibly as soon as the 1st quarter. While VZW mayinitiate commercial trials in its two test networksin Boston and Seattle, a full-scale commercial launch is highly unlikely. In many cases the silicon necessary to design even the simplest LTE dongle has either just started shipping in volumes or will do so in the 1st quarter–you can’t offer commercial services if you have no devices to sell. In fact, chipset availability issuesare more likely to push back VZW’s LTE plans rather than move them forward. Verizon needs dual-mode devices so customers can fall back on the CDMA EV-DO network where 4G isn’t available. And while vendors like Samsung have promised single-mode LTE modems in the first half of the year, there have been no such promises on multi-mode devices yet.

At the end of the day, becoming the first mover on LTE is a meaningless distinction–except for bragging rights (If VZW does pull it off, the words “World’s first LTE network” will appear in every press release for the next three years). Being first can even create problems. As AT&T (NYSE:T) is fond of pointing out there won’t be much of an LTE device market until 2011 (convenientlythe yearit plans to launch LTE), andthefirst to depluyLTEcould be viewed as guinea pigs. If there are any problems with the technology or the business models tied to them, these carriers will be the first tofindout. And as we’ve seen with 3G, tapping into the later generations of a vendor’s products isn’t a bad move. By virtue of having a brand-spanking-new base stations, T-Mobile USA (NYSE:DT) is alreadymigrating to 21 Mb/s HSPA+, while AT&T is slogging through a network upgrade that will boost its middle-aged HSPA network to 7.2 Mb/s.

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