As operators start looking at deploying a successor to their 3G networks, power users could be among the first to be shifted onto higher speed mobile networks.
Operators' roadmaps to LTE - the predicted upgrade path for the majority of mobile networks currently on 3G - are likely to be a diverse bunch, according to Motorola.
Paul Steinberg, Motorola chief architect of wireless networks, told silicon.com: "In terms of adoption on LTE - I think you'll see that go at different paces in different parts of the world. I think the operators would like to stretch out their 3G investment as much as they can… and then I think there are parts of the world where 3G technology doesn't go as far." For instance, he suggested, a 2G mobile operator might be tempted to bypass 3G altogether and instead move straight to LTE meaning a faster network deployment.
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Steinberg added that operators who follow the 3GPP standards track may be more likely to drag their feet when it comes to upgrading to LTE than those using 3GPP2 specifications - a tech that is "a little bit more friendly, natively IP based".
If this is the case, it could lead to geographical 3G/4G divides - with countries such as the US and Japan, which use CDMA-based tech, more likely to be early LTE adopters than regions such as Europe that have GSM/UMTS networks.
Steinberg said LTE deployments ultimately depend on the strategy of individual operators. "In Europe you will also see some very aggressive adopters of LTE truncating their [3G] investment," he said, adding: "I think what you'll see a lot of the LTE folks do is they'll deploy LTE in spots - hotspots - and they'll start to build out from there as a nationwide footprint and then that's why some of the technology handoff scenarios will be important.
"So, for example, in central London LTE may be a great technology to deploy to take a lot of the power users off the 3G network - the people that use laptop dongles."
Steinberg reckons LTE networks will start to be deployed late this year and early to mid 2010 - "assuming the macroeconomic meltdown doesn't significantly change that".
One area that may not be such a barrier to 4G progress is devices - as, in Steinberg's view, it's not about having to wait around for someone to make a 4G phone.
"What I think we'll see on LTE - and what we're already seeing on WiMax - it's a little different to what we've seen in the past. I think the devices of choice initially for LTE will be the dongles and the laptop-embedded cards. So those are much, much simpler devices than say, an iPhone, or a multimode device so they can come much quicker than people assume. So [availability of devices] may not be as big an impediment as people think," he added.
Motorola also weighed into the 4G future debate, arguing both WiMax and LTE can be part of the next-gen picture.
"WiMax and LTE are complementary technologies. We're aggressively pursuing both markets," Steinberg said.
The company is conducting LTE trials with multiple operators but has also been working with WiMax for several years - and Steinberg says the ultimate aim is to have common kit at base stations: "When we set out to build LTE… we will have actually a common kit at our base sites so you get a good deal of engineering leverage between the two plays," he told silicon.com.
While many mobile operators seem to be coalescing behind LTE, since it provides a clear upgrade path from their existing networks, in the US mobile operator Sprint has launched a nationwide WiMax network called Xohm. Currently only a single city, Baltimore, has been hooked up but Steinberg is confident they will continue to build out the network.
But elsewhere in the US, Steinberg sees LTE deployments taking place in the not too distant future and added: "I think you'll see all the technologies in play for sure… but they'll be slightly aimed in different niches."