Long Term Evolution (LTE), the next-generation wireless network chosen by 80 percent of the world’s carriers, isn’t turning out to be the star of this year’s Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. Instead of announcing LTE rollouts, carriers are talking up their upgrades to HSPA+, a small, software-based step up from existing GSM-based 3G networks. It’s like a Ferrari getting upstaged by an Acura. Acuras are cool, but underneath they’re still Hondas.
The Financial Times blames the LTE delays on the economic downturn, but Vodafone (s vod), France Telecom (s fte) and Deutsche Telekom (s dt) are putting off their Ferrari purchases because it makes sense from a technology and business perspective. Former Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin said at last year’s Mobile World Congress, and a few weeks later at CTIA, that Vodafone wouldn’t move to LTE until its current 3G network was full. Instead, the carrier planned to upgrade its HSPA network, which could be done with software rather than through building out a new physical infrastructure.
The Financial Times is wringing its hands over the fate of the telecom gear makers who were counting on upgrades to LTE, but I doubt that few of them have been caught off guard. The CEO of Ericsson (s eric), one of the biggest promoters of LTE, yesterday predicted five more years of HSPA dominance. So, even as equipment vendors tout their LTE milestones (such as Motorola (s MOT) showing off its ability to transfer calls on an LTE network), they know that most carriers with GSM networks, like AT&T (s T), won’t be moving to LTE until they have to.