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Summary:

Verizon expects its 4G mobile broadband will deliver speeds between 5-12 Mbps. So how does LTE –a technology that can deliver 150 Mbps — get whittled down to less than a tenth of that? We explain how physics, regulations, investment and users take their toll.

Verizon continues to say it will launch its fourth-generation, super-fast Long Term Evolution wireless network to cover 100 million people by the end of this year, but it’s also been clear that it expects its LTE network speeds to be just 5-12 Mbps. So how does LTE — a technology that can deliver a theoretical 150 Mbps — get whittled down to less than a tenth of its top speed?

Thanks to the recent attention on the potential shortage of wireless spectrum for mobile broadband, and the hope that mobile broadband could act as a decent substitute for wired broadband, it’s worth figuring out how spectrum, cell towers and subscribers all factor into the speeds a wireless carrier can offer. Peter Rysavy, a wireless analyst, offers a great explanation using Verizon as an example. Note that in a Network World article, Tony Melone, executive VP and CTO of Verizon Wireless, confirmed that the carrier will use all of its 700 MHz spectrum for LTE service. Here’s what Rysavy has to say on that:

“Looking forward to advanced technologies such as LTE, capacity will higher, but it will still be extremely limited compared to wireline capacity. Verizon Wireless’ LTE network will operate in the 700 MHz band using 10 MHz radio channels. With a spectral efficiency of 1.5 bps/Hz, this delivers sector throughput of 15 Mbps.

Meanwhile, there are about 1000 subscribers in the US for every cell site, which makes for an average of 333 subscribers per sector. If 10% of them were using the LTE data service, that would mean 33 users for the 15 Mbps data channel. Now, compare this with a subscriber of a wireline high‐speed Internet service of 50 Mbps that is dedicated, and not shared, as shown in Figure 2 (below). The point is not that the wireless network cannot deliver extremely useful and valuable services, since it can, but rather that wireless capacity is inherently limited compared to wireline capacity.”

Basically, Verizon can cram only a certain number of bits into each hertz — a function of how LTE allocates bits and a physics constraint. Multiply that number of bits times Verizon’s 10 MHz channels, which are dictated by regulatory policy as well as what Verizon paid for during the spectrum auction, and you have the top speed. Deliver those 15 Mbps channels to your cell sites (determined by Verizon’s investment decisions as well as community regulations that govern where towers are allowed) and divide by the number of devices sucking bits.

It’s complex math getting the infrastructure in place, but add in the infinite variables of iPads, smartphones, M2M sensors and even human traffic patterns and you have a situations in which delivering fast mobile broadband looks nothing short of miraculous.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Everybody Hertz: The Looming Spectrum Crisis

  1. Yep – Wireless doesn’t scale – I wrote a whole post on this yesterday: Why Wireless Doesn’t Scale with Moore’s Law: http://stevecheney.posterous.com/why-wireless-doesnt-scale-with-moores-law

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  2. At some point you knew I was going to chime in with an “I told you so,” right? :-)

    http://www.lightreading.com/blog.asp?blog_sectionid=776&doc_id=184242&

    http://www.sidecutreports.com/2009/02/18/lte-at-50-mbps-dont-hold-your-breath/

    Though I bow in the presence of the honorable Mr. Rysavy, the math and physics have been there ever since the 700 MHz auctions — there just isn’t enough spectrum for Verizon (or AT&T) to offer much beyond what they are promising for LTE. It isn’t the technology, it’s the available airwaves here that will be the limiting factor.

    And we haven’t even started to talk yet about why 700 MHz signals may be too good for their own good in urban areas — as in so strong they interfere with each other — which is why we need to listen closely when Verizon and AT&T talk about “antenna testing” for LTE. Bottom line, it may take longer than you think for all this to work the way we all want it to.

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  3. iTampon, Apple trinket users on Verizon Wireless? no way. VZW doesn’t want that bunch of bandwidth-hog whiner types

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  4. [...] Plus, even with it far off (the standard won’t even be set until 2011), the test speeds bear little relationship to the actual speeds. For proof, check out the LTE demo I saw back in 2008 showing speeds of 150 Mbps down and the anticipated speeds of 5-12 Mbps down that Verizon is telling users to expect on its network. I explain why there’s such a disconnect in this post. [...]

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  5. [...] in new spectrum, which will help meet capacity and bandwidth needs as well. Of course, it’s not going to provide the quality or consistency of wireline broadband, but expecting that would be kind of like believing in the tooth [...]

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  6. [...] spectrum is like the land on which the network is built. The airwaves are a finite resource that dictate how much capacity a mobile operator has. Capacity determines the number of users a network can have on a specific area, how fast the [...]

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  7. If you read between the lines a bit it looks like a 3G contract will also be required (or “bundled” into the pricing); also notice how Verizon removed the delivery date of “mid-to late-2010″ that we saw earlier (the site now just says “2010.”)

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  8. [...] While many consumers think of mobile broadband as an “always on and available to use as much as desired” type of utility, it simply isn’t. Towers don’t pop up overnight and even if they did, they need a fast wired connection to the web. Wireless spectrum from phones to such towers is limited too: if the concept doesn’t make sense, just try to connect 100 devices to your home wireless network to simulate this problem at a high level. If you’d rather not stress your home network, my colleague Stacey explains the concept in this post from last year. [...]

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