LTE is coming, but what will it bring?

April 06, 2011 // By Rick Merritt
LTE is coming, but what will it bring?
LTE is coming, but what it will mean is still unclear. There's no doubt its coming. The Global Mobile Suppliers Association reported on Tuesday (April 5) that 196 carriers in 75 countries are investing in LTE at some level. The report says 140 of those operators will deploy commercial LTE systems in 56 countries, up 118 percent from a year ago, and 56 other carriers are conducting LTE trials. It estimates at least 73 LTE networks will be in commercial service by the end of 2012.

Market watcher Parks Associates (Dallas) estimates use of 4G networks such as LTE and WiMax will rise from just four million subscribers today to 325 million in 2015. In the U.S., Verizon became the first to deploy LTE in December. A month later, archrival AT&T announced it is accelerating its plans to deploy LTE.

The good news is the war between GSM and CDMA appears to be over with all sides moving to LTE. WiMax made its bid to be the next big thing in mobile broadband, but troubles at Clearwire and elsewhere suggest it will be a niche offering.

The bad news is there is still plenty of uncertainty about how the shift to LTE will impact everyone from end users to silicon IP providers.

Parks Associates foresees tensions between carriers and end users. In the rising mobile storm, users want more and more mobile data for fixed prices as carriers struggle to pay for the build out of their wireless nets.

The carrier dynamic will put pressure on system providers to bring out the latest broadband systems at the lowest possible prices. And the penny pinching will be passed all down the supply chain, reminding me of what my former colleague Loring Wirbel used to call "instant commoditization."

Indeed the electronics industry is no stranger to fast changing technology and intense cost and price pressures. Veteran players and startups alike are showing their desire to jump into the transition knowing it’s the place where fortunes are made and lost.

Tensilica recently rolled out a new DSP core aimed at applications like LTE handset basebands, challenging incumbent Ceva, said to have 90 percent of that market. So far Samsung is leading the market for LTE chips used mainly in dongles at this point, said Will Strauss of Forward Concepts (Tempe, Arizona), but it's too early to pick winners and losers in the emerging market, he added.

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