Optical/IP Networks

CTIA 2009: Verizon's CDMA-to-LTE Helper

LAS VEGAS -- CTIA Wireless 2009 -- Now that Verizon has chosen the equipment vendors for its ambitious Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network project, Unstrung is taking a closer look at how Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) will take the U.S. operator from CDMA to LTE.

With equipment from AlcaLu and Ericsson in the radio access network; Evolved Packet Core (EPC) gear from AlcaLu, Ericsson, and Starent Networks Corp. (Nasdaq: STAR); and IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) kit from AlcaLu and Nokia Networks , Verizon will upgrade its CDMA-based cellular network to the next-generation of mobile broadband, LTE technology. EPC kit is similar to the old service gateway architecture in 3G networks -- maintaining users' mobile connections and allowing access to services -- the big difference being that it is now all-IP and has to support voice over a pure packet network.

A closer look at the operator’s radio access suppliers, however, shows that the vendors will take Verizon on that journey in different ways.

In a nutshell, the difference is that Ericsson is versed in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications behind LTE and can provide the very latest updates for the technology. Alcatel Lucent, meanwhile, has years of experience -- on the Lucent side at least -- with CDMA and will be able to help Verizon to integrate its new network with its existing infrastructure.

Verizon has already expressed confidence that both vendors will be able to meet its tight deadlines for providing LTE equipment this year. Verizon is planning to launch its first commercial LTE markets in 2010 as soon as it has a big enough footprint in an as-yet-unspecified number of U.S. cities. (See CTIA 2009 Preview: Verizon's LTE Party and MWC 2009: Verizon Picks LTE Vendors.)

ABI Research analyst Nadine Manjaro says that she has “no doubt” that Ericsson will be ready with LTE as Verizon starts to deploy LTE in 2009. “They were already announcing LTE back in 2007,” she notes. (See Ericsson Demos LTE.)

The analyst says she is less sure about the full readiness of Alcatel-Lucent’s LTE platform. The company is unveiling its LTE offerings at the CTIA show in Las Vegas. (See AlcaLu Mines IP Smarts for LTE Core and AlcaLu Converges in RAN.)

”They’re going to need to step up to the plate,” she says.

Initially, Manjaro expects that Verizon and its infrastructure partners will focus “purely on LTE.” Verizon’s CTO Dick Lynch has said before that dual-mode devices that support both LTE and CDMA are important to the operator, but such devices are unlikely to be the very first gadgets on the network. (See LTE Phones Will Lag Behind Networks .)

”They’re going to get a few markets up and running before they begin integrating such a new, untried technology,” opines Manjaro.

Alcatel-Lucent is the company that is expected to be most helpful to Verizon in bringing together its LTE future with its CDMA legacy. “Verizon needed a strong CDMA partner for this endeavor,” Manjaro says.

Specifically, Manjaro believes that Alcatel will be best placed to provide the carrier with service nodes that tie together the LTE and CDMA networks. These are evolved High Rate Packet Data (eHRPD) boxes that are supposed to provide an evolutionary pathway between 3G CDMA networks and LTE. They replace the Packet Data Serving Node (PDSN), which interfaces with the radio network and the IP core in current deployments, and helps to manage the call session and billing between a mobile device and the network.

Manjaro is predicting that AlcaLu will have eHRPD equipment ready for Verizon later this year.

Some other analysts believe, however, that AlcaLu isn't going to be the premier supplier to Verizon of this specialized network equipment. "Starent is best placed to provide the eHRPD function," says Gabriel Brown, senior analyst with Heavy Reading. "This is an upgrade to the EV-DO core."

Nonetheless, most expect it to be somewhat of a contrast to Ericsson's more purely LTE approach. Ericsson is taking “a more greenfield approach to the deployment," concludes ABI's Manjaro.

Ericsson couldn't find spokespeople at the Vegas CTIA show, or otherwise, to address Unstrung's specific questions about its role in the LTE deployment. The vendor is, however, promising an LTE demonstration at the show.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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