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Don’t expect fireworks from LTE in 2010

While Long Term Evolution (LTE) is without a doubt one of the most hyped mobile data standards to come along in quite some time, you probably shouldn't expect the 4G network technology to make a big impact in 2010.

For the most part, the buzz surrounding LTE is justified. It is, after all, the technology that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have chosen as their 4G mobile data standard, while initial trials of the technology have shown that it has the ability to stream high-definition video over the air. However, LTE is unlikely to reach its full potential until sometime after 2010, despite the fact that Verizon is working to make it commercially available next year.

For one thing, most other wireless carriers in the U.S. are taking a more deliberate approach to deploying LTE than Verizon has taken. AT&T and T-Mobile will each start offering LTE services commercially sometime in 2011, as both carriers are content to make the most out of their GSM-based 3G networks over the next year before making the transition. AT&T says that one key reason for its take-it-slow approach is that there won't be many strong LTE-compatible devices hitting the market next year and that it wants to launch its 4G network when it is certain that people will be ready to use it.

“Device options will be very limited until standards are finalized,” explains AT&T spokesperson Jenny Bridges. “As the first carrier to widely deploy HSDPA, we initially saw a limited device portfolio, even though that technology had been standardized for several years. It's reasonable to expect the same general path for progress of LTE.”

The other major issue for LTE is that it doesn't yet have a finalized standard for transmitting voice and SMS. Verizon, AT&T and several of telecom companies joined forces last month to help push voice and SMS standards for LTE, but the companies acknowledged that they aren't yet anywhere near a final product. This could prove problematic for Verizon in its early deployments of LTE, as the carrier will have to rely solely upon data services for its LTE devices, much as Clearwire's current WiMAX offerings are solely data-based.

Once voice standards for LTE are finalized, they are much more likely to be based on VoIP technology than on traditional cellular networks, especially since LTE is built entirely around IP. This means that once LTE is widely deployed, it could mean the end of minute-based cellular phone bills. Speaking at the CTIA Wireless show in Las Vegas earlier this year, AT&T Wireless chief Ralph de la Vega said that LTE's high bandwidth meant that carriers would eventually move toward pricing models that charge only for data volume, not for minutes.

“Once we deploy LTE, we will be able to sell more data at a lower price than we do today,” he said. “The future trend will be to just sell data. It's a little too early to talk about rate plans for LTE, but I think the way the world is going it will be about how much data you want to buy.”

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