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MWC Preview: LTE in the Limelight

The buzz about next-generation mobile technologies has reached fever pitch in the run up to the mobile industry's biggest event of the year, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (February 11-14).

And the tapas-feasting show-goers are sure to see fourth generation (4G) technology Long-Term Evolution (LTE) steal much of the spotlight.

Following Light Reading's report that Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) is hosting a meeting with vendors and other influential operators to discuss LTE plans, and this week's news of LTE's performance in early lab trials, it's clear that operators will be talking a lot about the next-gen mobile broadband technology next week. (See Vodafone Plans LTE Powwow and LTE Hits 300 Mbit/s.)

In his keynote address at last year's 3GSM show (as it was then known), Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin chided the mobile industry for being too slow to develop new technologies, pointing out that mobile WiMax was nearing commercial readiness while LTE was still stuck in standards bodies. This year, the major infrastructure suppliers will show off LTE's capabilities with live demos. (See 3GSM: Mobile's Fear Factor.)

"Hopefully we can tell Arun that we've listened carefully and the industry is fully into development," says Erik Ekudden, head of standardization and industry initiatives at Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC).

But which company will make the biggest LTE news splash? Most of the big vendors will have LTE demonstrations of some variety, but are keeping next week's announcements under wraps.

It's known, though, that Nokia Networks will make an LTE announcement at its press conference on Monday. (See PicoChip Intros LTE Design, NSN Touts Tier 1 4G Trials, NSN Shows Off LTE, DoCoMo Does LTE With NSN, Ericsson Demos LTE, Ericsson Goes to MWC, AlcaLu Tests 4G, AlcaLu, LG Make LTE Calls, and NEC Joins DoCoMo LTE Trial.)

But LTE is a technology still very much under development, and not yet through the standardization process, so there are still many questions to be asked in Barcelona. (See 3G LTE: How Far? How Fast? and Next-Gen Spectrum Crunch.)

The radio access specifications for the LTE standard at the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) are finished for the most part. But the system architecture evolution (SAE), which specifies the mobile packet core that will be used with LTE, is not yet complete. (See LTE Specs on Track.)

"Until the SAE standard is complete, which will be middle of this year, we won't have a fully standards-compliant offering," says Gerry Collins, director of wireless for EMEA at Nortel Networks Ltd. . "The physical layer is well defined and we have a good understanding of what hardware we'll offer for trials at the end of this year."

Interoperability issues under scrutiny
The LTE/SAE Trial Initiative (LSTI) was created in May last year and now has 18 operator and equipment vendor members. The task of the initiative is to accelerate LTE development by working on equipment interoperability and conducting trials with operators.

"LTE interoperability is an important area we'll hear a lot about in Barcelona," says Ericsson's Ekudden. "There's a strong focus in the industry now on ensuring that LTE has all the support it needs."

"Interoperability is an important topic -– we're working full-steam ahead," agrees Kai Sahala, head of strategic solution sales in radio access at Nokia Siemens Networks. "Ensure that the equipment is interoperable, and this speeds up the deployment of LTE in general."

Handset availability
Equipment suppliers say they don't want to end up in the same situation with LTE as they did with UMTS (3G), where the network infrastructure was developed, but handsets were nowhere to be seen.

"One of the mistakes with UMTS was that we accelerated the infrastructure [development] and left behind the terminals and ecosystem," says Nortel's Collins.

The LSTI has handset vendor members, including Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), which are working on getting handsets to market on time.

"We're demanding that terminals be available at the same time as the network," says Ekudden. "Strong commitment on the terminal side shows LTE will be ready."

WiMax vs. LTE
The comparison between mobile WiMax and LTE, both regarded as 4G technologies, just can't be avoided. And Light Reading's report that the WiMax Forum is taking steps to approve a frequency division duplex (FDD) version of WiMax means the two technologies could become closer competitors. (See WiMax Edges Closer to LTE.)

"WiMax and LTE complement each other at this point in time," says NSN's Sahala. "Whether there will be an FDD WiMax and whether there will be any overlap remains to be seen. Right now, it's about getting TDD [time division duplex] to market first."

Among the operators, NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), Vodafone, and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) have been the most vocal about their plans for evolving their networks to LTE. But AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) just added its desire to pursue the LTE path when it announced Wednesday upgrade plans for its 3G network in the U.S. (See AT&T 's Road to 4G, Verizon, Vodafone Head for LTE, and Verizon Goes LTE.)

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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