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MWC Preview: LTE Steals the Show

Next-generation mobile broadband technology Long-Term Evolution (LTE) will be the talk of the town in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress next week.

Verizon Wireless CTO Richard Lynch has already whetted the curiosity of the industry with his announcement that he will reveal a shortlist of LTE suppliers next week. (See Verizon to Name LTE Vendors at MWC.)

Verizon, China Mobile Communications Corp. , NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), and T-Mobile International AG are the big operators at the vanguard of LTE developments. What these operators say, or don't say, next week about the technology and their network plans will be significant.

Here are some of the questions that you'll hear debated in the halls next week: To what extent will the economic crisis affect operator spending on next-generation mobile broadband infrastructure? How exactly will LTE be different from any other new wireless technology in terms of deployment delays and technology hiccups? While expectations are high now, aren't we going to be waiting a long time for Long-Term Evolution?

And here are a few more to ponder: How fast will LTE really be in the real world? How will operators deliver voice? Or will LTE be data-only for some time to come? And do we even dare ask about devices?

Ready for prime time?
Last year, all the LTE action was in operator labs. But this year, the emphasis from vendors and some operators will be on commercial readiness. Verizon's Lynch has said that he wants his chosen vendors to be ready by the end of the year.

LTE commercial activity has already started picking up. NTT DoCoMo and Telia Company have already awarded equipment contracts, while AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile have issued requests for proposals (RFPs). More contract awards are expected from KDDI Corp. in Japan later this year. (See TeliaSonera: We'll Do 4G in 2010.)

Vendors vie for the core
Equipment vendors are also getting their evolved packet core (EPC) houses in order. Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU)'s Mary Chan, president of end-to-end 4G/LTE networks, told Unstrung that the vendor will be developing its own packet core solution, as opposed to seeking a partner, as Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) has established with Starent Networks Corp. (Nasdaq: STAR). (See Motorola Enlists Starent for 4G Push.)

Nokia Networks launched this week two products that will make up the main elements in its EPC solution: the Flexi Network Server and Gateway. And Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) took the wraps off its new EPC portfolio that includes software upgrades to its existing packet core products, but also a new product, the Converged Packet Gateway. (See NSN Works LTE and Ericsson Launches LTE Core.)

China's influence
China Mobile's LTE development -- which is the time division duplex (TDD) flavor of the technology, called TD-LTE -- is interesting, not just because of what it means for the Chinese market, but also because of the potential to deploy the technology in emerging markets. There is some speculation that China Mobile wants to leapfrog the Chinese homegrown 3G technology TD-SCDMA as much as possible and migrate quickly to TD-LTE. (See TD-LTE Heads For MWC.)

Vendors like Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, and Motorola, which are working on developing TD-LTE, see opportunities for the technology outside China.

"In addition to China, we look at TD-LTE as an opportunity to quickly deploy in many of the emerging markets and evolve to FDD once the FDD spectrum is available," says Alcatel-Lucent's Chan. (See Hail Mary: Chan Takes 4G Helm at AlcaLu.)

And the sheer size of China Mobile's plans is likely to drive down the cost of LTE equipment.

"China Mobile… wants to do large-scale trials in the second half of 2010," says Thomas Norén, Ericsson's director of LTE. "That means thousands of base stations if they do it the same way as in TD-SCDMA. They've gotten all the vendors to endorse and support their plans for TD-LTE. We're fully behind them for TD-LTE."

When will LTE devices be ready?
According to Ericsson's Norén, the first commercial data-only devices will be available in the first quarter of 2010, and the first handheld terminals will be available at the end of 2010.

"The challenge with all mobile systems has been the terminals. That's always a worrying factor," he says.

Here's a quick rundown of the latest LTE news as the mobile industry prepares for its annual shindig in Barcelona:

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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