Both AT&T and Verizon have given their spiels at CES, the annual technology mecca held in Las Vegas. Both have teased with an impressive line of products. And both have boosted their efforts in building out next-level mobile network technologies.
At first glance, AT&T seemed it would be the victor. The company increased its user base to 93 million by the end of 2010, siphoning users from Verizon, who now only claims 10 million more subscribers than AT&T. HSPA +, AT&T’s next-level network, has already been unfurled across America, connecting 100 percent of its subscriber base to “4G”. And the company announced a new lineup of 20 devices–tablets, smartphones, notebooks, and mobile hotspots–that will become available during the year over the HSPA+ network. In terms of devices, recently-added subscribers, and speed–at the moment–AT&T is clearly ahead.
LTE Vs. HSPA+
Verizon, on the other hand, will soon be toting the iPhone along with 10 new Android devices (again, tablets, smartphones, notebooks, and mobile hotspots). While the devices are fewer, they will be running on Long Term Evolution (LTE), Verizon’s new network that offers higher speeds than anything we’ve seen before. Therein lies Verizon’s trump card. LTE is widely regarded as faster than AT&T’s HSPA+, which is just a build-out of existing 3G technology. And, in rolling out Long Term Evolution, Verizon is way ahead of AT&T, which, according to AT&T’s CEO Ralph de la Vega, will launch initially in mid-2011 but won’t be fully deployed until 2012.
First things first. LTE, HSPA + (and WiMax, for that matter) are not true 4G technologies. They do not meet engineering standards set for true fourth generation. 4G as applied to the network technologies of now is a term born of marketing, not of standards bodies. But, LTE, HSPA +, and WiMax all represent a marked improvement from the 3G and 3GS technologies we have all been used to.
When compared, however, LTE is a much greater improvement. HSPA + is generally considered to offer peak speeds of 42 Mbps DL and 23 Mbps UL. LTE is said to offer peaks of 300 Mbps DL and 75 Mbps UL. (These speeds are theoretical peak speeds. In practice, and as experienced by the end user, they will both be much lower. Used here, they are meant to be a reference for comparison.)
If theoretical references don’t work for you, you can consider another recent development. Skype and Verizon have deepened their relationships with a deal to supply a Skype app across all devices in Verizon’s LTE portfolio. Skype wants to take advantage of the latency and high-speed uplink associated with LTE to leverage its video chatting. Since video calls require consistently high-quality connection speeds with limited wobbling, the Skype partnership with Verizon indicates Skype’s confidence in Long Term Evolution.
Also, AT&T did announce that they’re building out their Long Term Evolution networks. If HSPA+ was as good as they’re claiming it to be–if it went toe-to-toe with LTE–why would AT&T be investing so heavily in Long Term Evolution?
Despite Verizon’s clear lead in network speeds, AT&T may yet retain its lead in subscribers. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the marketing of “4G” has already obscured the true definition of fourth generation technology standards. In a landscape where LTE, HSPA+, and WiMax are all ballyhooed as 4G, only the most educated of consumers will know that LTE is actually the fastest. Second, AT&T’ announced more devices than Verizon at CES. Speed, while important, is not everything. AT&T can lure subscribers in with cheap iPhone 3GS’s, WP7s, or one of the other 20 new devices that are slated for 2011. Verizon, remember, only announced the arrival of 10 Android devices.
Verizon’s main travail will be in demonstrating to consumers that LTE is faster and luring them to purchase the (fewer) devices that are offered on the LTE network. They will have only one year to do so, as AT&T will have LTE fully deployed by 2012. Could it be that Verizon is too ahead for its own good?