Move over 3G, LTE new kid on the block


Mobile communications have become part of daily life and the trend is accelerating. This has fueled the development of Long Term Evolution, a next-generation communications network.

Japan’s biggest cell phone operator, NTT DoCoMo Inc., will launch LTE services in December, and the other major carriers plan to make the shift in the next few years.

How will LTE change the domestic communications industry and impact consumers? Here are some basic questions and answers about the new network. What is so different about LTE?

Current cell phones connect with the Internet mainly through the 3G, or third-generation, network. The LTE network, which has been dubbed 3.9G or 4G, is much faster, which sets the stage for it to become the new main network not far down the road.

The LTE service planned for December will be for data only and offer a maximum Internet downlink speed of 37.5 megabits per second and an uplink speed of 12.5 Mbps in most areas, and 75 Mbps down and 25 Mbps up elsewhere. The 3G network only offers maximum speeds of 7.2 Mbps down and 5.7 Mbps up.

The downlink speed indicates how fast you can get data, while the uplink speed indicates how fast you can send it. Having a faster downlink speed means you can browse the Web and download data faster and easier.

LTE is so fast, in fact, that it exceeds that of home-based ADSL connections. NTT’s ADSL service, for example, offers a maximum downlink speed of 47 Mbps and maximum uplink speed of just 5 Mbps.

What are the other benefits LTE has to offer?

Aside from the speed-enhanced mobile Internet experience, LTE is also expected to become a major global network and already has cell phone carriers in other countries, including Verizon and AT&T of the U.S., on board. This will allow customers to make do with just one mobile device when traveling abroad.

This will also bring down handset prices, since makers won’t have to equip phones with extra chips to make them compatible with all the different global networks.

In addition, Japanese carriers are using different communication networks, with DoCoMo and Softbank Corp. using WCDMA and KDDI Corp.’s au using CDMA-2000. A shift to LTE will likely lead to the release of SIM-free phones, making it possible for consumers to switch carriers and devices.

When will LTE services and LTE-ready phones be available?

DoCoMo will launch an LTE service named Xi (strangely pronounced “crossy”) on Dec. 24. For the time being, it will be a data-only plan that will require the use of a USB data terminal. LTE-ready phones are expected to hit the market in the second half of fiscal 2011, DoCoMo says.

DoCoMo will initially offer LTE services in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and expand it to the other major cities by the end of fiscal 2012.

Au will start offering LTE services in fiscal 2012 with the goal of covering 96.5 percent of the population, KDDI says.

Softbank is also planning to launch an LTE service, but a spokesman said the timing has not yet been decided.

Many mobile phones can use Wi-Fi networks, which are just as fast as LTE. Will there be any special services just for LTE?

People in the industry say the task ahead for LTE is to differentiate and enhance its services from the content and other attractions already available on the cell phone-based Internet network.

This is the point that differs the most from the time when cell phones first became commercially popular, said Akiyoshi Ishiwata, principal analyst at Gartner Japan, a Tokyo-based IT research and consultant firm.

“Users won’t be really attracted by a mere increase in Internet connection speed and usability,” he said.

“People won’t pay for handsets unless the phones have software that they want to use. Nobody knows at this point what key applications and trends” will emerge from LTE, he said.

Using outside Wi-Fi networks, such as those offered at train stations and cafes, often requires customers to register and pay daily or monthly fees. LTE-capable phones will also require registration and fees but will be able to access the Internet from anywhere in the operator’s coverage area.

Why are the carriers shifting to LTE?

Because it’s the only next-generation alternative in town.

The carriers have been concerned that the 3G network is being strained by the surge in data information traffic. But LTE can handle traffic more efficiently and will be less costly to build, said Tatsuro Oi, manager of corporate strategy and planning at DoCoMo.

“The current base stations and antennas can be mostly used for LTE, so we can create the network system for less,” Oi said.

DoCoMo plans to spend ¥170 billion over the next three business years to build the network, which will cover about 40 percent of the population.

Another reason behind the shift is that cell phone carriers are hoping to construct a simpler, single network that can combine both voice and data networks in the future, said Ishiwata of Gartner Japan.

Since voice transmission has up to this point required the use of circuit switchboards, which require extensive investment and are costly to maintain, mobile phone operators now want to switch to Internet-based voice services, which are cheaper to operate, he said.

Mobile phone companies’ profits have been declining steadily in recent years.

Will LTE services only be available on cell phones?

People in the industry say that as the LTE network broadens, services will probably be extended to cover other devices, including computers and home electronic appliances.

Ishiwata said motor vehicles will be able to tap the LTE network through car navigation systems and get more information.

This might become relevant when electric cars start to proliferate and drivers require data on the location of charging stations and the power needed to get to their destinations.

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