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V'fone Germany to Test LTE for Rural Broadband

Vodafone Germany plans to launch a trial in the coming weeks to test whether Long-Term Evolution (LTE) can deliver broadband access in rural areas. The initiative could see the proto-4G technology play a key role in the country's national broadband policy.

The operator is considering LTE for rural broadband coverage because of the low frequency spectrum that is expected to be auctioned in Germany later this year -- the so-called "digital dividend" band between 790 and 862 MHz (a.k.a. 800 MHz), which the government has earmarked for broadband coverage. (See Germany's Monster 4G Auction.)

With the recently announced German Broadband Strategy, which has an initial target to have 100 percent of households served with at least 1 Mbit/s broadband access by the end of 2010, the government wants the 800 MHz spectrum to be used for closing broadband coverage gaps. And, according to a Vodafone Germany spokesman, that's 10 percent of German households that don't have access to broadband.

So Vodafone, in partnership with German public broadcaster WDR and the regional media authority LFM in North Rhine Westphalia, is preparing to test LTE at 800 MHz to determine just how fast the download speeds would be and whether there would be any interference with the broadcaster's neighboring spectrum, the spokesman confirmed to Unstrung, after it was first reported by Telecompaper and Telegeography.

Gear selections haven't been made
The equipment vendor for the trial has not yet been decided, according to the spokesman. He explained that Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) was one of the candidates "among others who can provide equipment now... 'others' including Chinese vendors as well." Vodafone's current suppliers in Germany are Ericsson, Nokia Networks , and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. in the fixed network, he added. (See CTIA 2009: Ericsson Shows Off LTE Prototypes and Huawei Joins Vodafone LTE Trial.)

Commercial deployment would be from 2010 or later, but the Vodafone man stressed that the operator is only talking about LTE in the context of the digital dividend spectrum and rural coverage in the short-term. "We're not talking about a nationwide rollout of LTE very soon," he said. "That's a different question -- more long-term."

For a rural LTE deployment, Vodafone hopes to use standing GSM base-station sites to locate the new LTE equipment. "We want to use existing sites, minimize the number of new sites. Wherever possible, that's what we want to do."

LTE spectrum choices
Given the government's desire for broadband über alles, it is likely that there will be rural coverage obligations attached to the licenses for the 800 MHz spectrum, although the regulator, Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) , has not yet made this decision.

But in addition to the 800 MHz spectrum, the upcoming auction includes higher frequency spectrum in the 1.8 GHz, 2 GHz, and 2.6 GHz bands, which means operators may opt for different frequencies to make up their future mobile broadband plans. While the lower frequency 800 MHz is better suited for coverage, the higher frequencies are better in terms of capacity.

Vodafone's spokesman would not reveal the operator's strategy for the upcoming auction (not surprisingly), but said that, "we might use LTE in other frequencies in other areas."

That line of thinking appears to be common among other operators, according to Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown.

"This aligns closely with our research findings," says Brown. "We expect operators to pursue a dual-band deployment strategy for LTE, with a coverage layer at lower frequencies and a capacity layer in the higher bands."

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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