Despite hitting the market just three years ago, Long Term Evolution (LTE) is expected to reach 200 million subscribers this year, doubling its current levels in 2012, according to a report from IHS iSuppli.
LTE, also known as 4G technology, launched in 2010 and reached 612,000 users. It grew to 13.2 million subscribers worldwide in 2011 and then rocketed to 100 million in 2012. By 2016, it will reach one billion users.
While LTE began in Nordic countries like Finland, it's the U.S. that has the most subscribers, about half of the worldwide total, according to Wayne Lam, senior analyst for wireless communications at iSuppli.
There was another contender for the 4G market, WiMAX, which was championed by Intel and ClearWire. Sprint was the only major U.S. carrier to adopt it, but in 2011, it announced it was shifting to LTE instead.
WiMAX is far from dead, notes Lam. It is being repurposed in the developing world. "WiMAX is still an option in developing countries. They are using that technology as a sort of fixed mobile broadband solution, which sounds contradictory. They don't have the infrastructure for cable or fiber so they rely on WiMAX to bring broadband to their home," he said.
Verizon is the U.S. leader in LTE. It was the first to start a rollout and will have 4G/LTE coverage to match its 3G coverage by the middle of this year. Sprint expects to finish by sometime in 2014 and AT&T expects to complete its rollout by the end of 2014.
T-Mobile, which has promoted its HSPA+ network as 4G, was a real laggard when it came to 4G plans. But that will work to its benefit, as it will deploy a newer version of the technology, called LTE-Advanced. LTE Advanced can utilize and aggregate a mixture of cellular technology to give a wider broadcast pipe.
The real challenge for carriers is spectrum. 3G technology was deployed over just a handful of spectrum bands while LTE so far has consumed more than 40 different frequency spectrums. The need for spectrum to carry all that data is forcing carriers to retire old networks. Sprint is shutting down iDEN and AT&T is retiring its EDGE network, and the freed up bandwidth will be used for 4G.
"Because carriers are in this frantic search for more spectrum to support their network they are planning a strategy to refarm 3G spectrum, to offload their LTE network. That's the challenge right now, trying to get enough bandwidth. If they have enough contiguous bandwidth in different spectrums, they will likely use things like carrier aggregations to carry a large portion of their LTE data," said Lam.
For consumers, 2013 holds a year where LTE becomes mainstream and hopefully more power-friendly. "What you will see is all these LTE early adopters will share their great experiences with the bulk of the public," said Lam.
Network providers will have to make optimizations to chipsets and work on life battery to make sure a 4G phone doesn't burn through your batter in four or five hours, which is a problem for first-generation 4G/LTE phones.
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