AT&T goes with Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent for LTE

by Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Wireless

However greedily Huawei has been biting at the mobile vendors’ heels in their European heartlands, the US door remains firmly slammed in its face. AT&T has announced its LTE vendors, a year almost to the day since Verizon Wireless did the same thing, and has chosen exactly the same RAN suppliers – Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent.

This will be a huge relief to both suppliers, which have been feeling the pressure from Huawei in the first round of LTE trials and contracts. The Chinese giant has moved beyond its old reputation for competing purely on price and shown itself able to challenge even in cutting edge technologies. And with the firm overtaking ALU and Nokia Siemens in the overall mobile infrastructure rankings last quarter, the traditional players need to ensure their bugbear does not convert too many of its early LTE trials into major deployments.

Breaking into the US is tough for Huawei, largely for political reasons, and so far it only has 4G deals with Clearwire for WiMAX and cableco Cox. This leaves North America, which promises to surpass even Japan in early adoption of 4G technologies, a surprisingly clear run for Ericsson. Once the Swedish giant’s weak spot, the region now accounts for 12% of group revenues, following the acquisition of CDMA, LTE and GSM assets, and the huge outsourcing deal with Sprint.

Providing LTE kit for both the big two cellcos gives it a good springboard to dominate this market going forward, pushing more entrenched local players like Motorola aside – even if LTE, as Ericsson has said itself, will not generate meaningful revenues for a couple more years.

Alcatel-Lucent, the incumbent in north America thanks to Lucent’s huge CDMA base, will be even more relieved to have secured part of the AT&T contract. Despite its win at Verizon, it has so far been overshadowed in European and Asian LTE by Ericsson and Huawei, and badly needs to ensure that the decline in CDMA revenues and margins will be offset by new sales, most urgently in the US.

AT&T will start field trials later this year and plans initial commercial deployments in 2011, a timeline that has been brought forward slightly, probably to address fears that the cellco would fall too far behind Verizon in mobile broadband capability. These fears have been particularly acute given the failure of its 3G network to support the mobile data explosion, much of it driven by its iPhone exclusive, in key urban areas.

Although the carrier is upgrading its whole network to HSPA, it is only moving to the 7.2Mbps iteration, while many operators in other parts of the world are implementing 14.4Mbps or even HSPA+ (21Mbps or 42Mbps) for areas of high capacity requirement. AT&T will certainly have some catching up to do, if it is to retain Apple’s favours, support new data-driven devices like the iPad and netbooks, and compete with Clearwire and Verizon LTE in key metro markets.

Initial roll outs will focus on these city-based regions of high data demand. Despite their early timescales compared to European carriers – most of which will not start deploying until 2012 at the earliest – Verizon and AT&T are expected to confine their roll-outs to fairly limited areas of high population density for at least a couple of years. Verizon will also use LTE for some rural access requirements, in its 700MHz spectrum, whose long range is strong for covering sparse populations and getting signals indoors (though problematic for dense urban hotzones, where the revenues will lie). AT&T is also expected to use 700MHz spectrum acquired in the 2008 auctions, and also to overlay some of its 3G networks with LTE, linked to a common core.

The firm played down its timelag behind its arch rival, hinting that Verizon would roll out before there were devices available anyway. By contrast, John Stankey, CEO of AT&T Operations, said the AT&T schedule “aligns with industry expectations for development of LTE technology and widespread availability of equipment and compatible LTE mobile devices”.

The carrier also said that “as part of the supplier agreements, 3G equipment delivered to AT&T by the suppliers starting this year will be easily convertible to LTE, enabling A&T to upgrade existing equipment and software rather than install entirely new equipment in many cases”. This will be one factor in the choice of Ericsson and ALU, both of which currently supply AT&T’s HSPA network, though the cellco said it had tested equipment from other providers too. But they will support a parallel strategy for 3G and LTE, which Stankey was keen to contrast with Verizon’s more abrupt migration path between CDMA and the new platform.

“AT&T has a key advantage in that LTE is an evolution of the existing GSM family of technologies that powers our network … As some competitors move away from their existing investment in niche 3G platforms, we are able to efficiently and quickly move toward LTE while enhancing our existing 3G performance and providing access to a strong ecosystem of customer devices,” he said in a clear swipe at Verizon – a swipe from which ALU will be keen to distance itself, since one of its key selling points to its CDMA base is the ease of migration it offers with its multimode strategy.

Financial terms of the deals with Ericsson and ALU were not disclosed. The clear loser in the US market is now Nokia Siemens. With the top three cellcos secured in terms of 4G RAN, NSN only has a contract with Verizon Wireless for its LTE IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem), shared with ALU, having dropped out of the Clearwire supplier list at an early stage. It will be hard for the firm to maintain the brave face it put on Verizon’s choices a year ago, when then-CEO Simon Beresford-Wylie commented: “This is their first wave of build-out – we’re right at the beginning of this. I look forward to being there in the second wave.”

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