LTE is coming, but what will it bring?
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.
Just as new leaders in the Ethernet market often emerge with new technology generations, LTE could shake up the leaders in wireless. Expect change.
The LTE changes will extend all the way down to patent portfolios. Qualcomm has significant patents here, but no longer commands the stranglehold in intellectual property it had in CDMA, opening the door to a broader set of players.
Meanwhile, the consumer gadget paparazzi will most closely watch the changes LTE brings to handsets. Apple usually updates its iPhone in the summer and could support LTE in an iPhone 5, although the company tends to avoid bleeding edge technology. Samsung, HTC and LG are more likely candidates to lead in the first wave of LTE handsets.
So change is coming. It will extend from end user data plans to cellphones, back-end systems and the chips, IP cores and patents that make them work. But it remains to be seen just how those changes will play out.