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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

LTE iPhone? Not until 2013, I reckon

There was a lot of speculation about whether Apple might have made some sort of announcement about 3.75G or 3.9G support in the iPhone. In the end, the iPhone 4 has stuck to the tried-and-tested HSPA formular, rather than going to HSPA+ or LTE.

This is pretty much unsurprising.

There was no technology pragmatism behind the assertions that, because Sprint was launching the so-called 4G Evo HTC phone, that Steve Jobs might try and one-up its rivals.

I guess there was a vague chance they could have put out an HSPA+ variant, which would have as much right to a 4G marketing slogan as current WiMAX (ie nil), but given the general thinness of HSPA+ availability today, it was also improbable.

Moreover, at the risk of making myself a hostage to fortune, I don't expect an LTE iPhone in 2011 either. At present, I'd rate the distribution of probabilities to be:

2011 - 5% chance
2012 - 30%
2013 - 45%
2014 - 15%
2015 or later - 5%

There are numerous reasons that I'm dismissive of the idea of a so-called 4G LTE iPhone:

  • History - Apple has shown little interest in being first to market with a new radio technology, and would rather wait until there is a sizeable base of stable networks on which to launch. Hence the first iPhone only having EDGE. By 2011, only a few networks will have launched LTE, and none will have really decent coverage.
  • Power consumption and optimisation - who honestly believes that the first batch of LTE chipsets and devices will be that great at power management, cell-to-cell handoff and all those other "hygiene factors" that make for a decent user experience?
  • Frequency bands - as I've written before, the LTE world is going to be very fragmented. 700MHz in the US, 2100Hz and then 1700MHz in Japan, some mix of 800 / 900 /1800 / 2600MHz in Europe, TDD versions in China and so on. Trying to get a 4- or 5-band LTE device capable of roaming or even sale in multiple geographies is a long way off. Add in delays in even selling spectrum in 2.6GHz or 800MHz digital dividend, and some idea of harmonisation, let alone network deployment goes back further.
  • Fallback to 3.5G - any LTE smartphone will need to have decent 3.5G backup, probably HSPA in the current bands. A Verizon LTE one would need CDMA EVDO (seems unlikely unless they get an exclusive to take over from AT&T). If Europe goes to 2.6GHz as the main LTE band (which is still unclear), then fallback to 3G indoors is going to be happening a lot of the time
  • Operator fragmentation. Apart from a couple of markets like the US, Apple is now pursuing a multi-operator strategy. The likelihood that multiple operators *within* a country will end up with similar LTE/HSPA mix of bands is looking very improbable.
  • Voice and SMS - 'nuff said.
  • Indoor usage scenarios - ditto
  • Price - adding in more expensive basebands, radio components, loads of testing, software integration.... all for what? A higher theoretical peak speed, under optimum conditions, which may not even be useable by the device?
Overall, I reckon Apple will care much more about *average* speeds attainable by users across a broad range of countries, operators and environments. It is far from clear that LTE will be the driving factor for improvements in "normal, average user experience" for several years, especially when averaged across multiple countries and operators.

There's no rush. I think Apple will wait until LTE works at least as well as HSPA does already.

Got your own opinion on when it will launch? Check out the vote set up for me by Live Talkback - http://m.livetalkback.com/disruptiveanalysis

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