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Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone Details The 4G Roll Out

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So far, the biggest news of the relatively sleepy CTIA is Verizon’s announcement that its high-speed 4G network is coming soon to 38 markets.

The process is more than three years in the making. In 2007, it paid $9 billion for then spectrum, and have since been working in close cooperation of LTE infrastructure makers, back-haul providers and device makers. Now, its job is in convincing customers that its worth adopting. We caught up with Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone to get the skinny on what to expect when the network lights up later this year.

On providing a broad, ubiquitous experience: We’ve written about the problems of advanced networks before. They can often be unpredictable and full of holes, but Melone says they have taken a different approach and have committed to building out 70 percent of the footprint in each market. “What the customer wants is predictability. When we define a market at a 70 percent minimum, we don’t want any holes.” Generally, he said the rule of thumb is that if there’s 3G cover than there will be 4G, but if there’s conditions they haven’t been able to cover come for 3G, than they won’t have 4G. Otherwise, the core of each market will be built out to the edges minus 30 percent.

On the remaining 30 percent: He said that if they did build out the markets 100 percent, they would have only been able to build 25 instead of 38. In phase two, they’ll add new markets, and expand the 70 percent to 90 percent. “The last 10 percent costs you more than the first 50 percent of a new market,” he said.

Falling back to 3G: Both AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile USA are boosting their speeds on their 3G networks. Then, when users fall back from 4G to 3G, it won’t be such a long drop. Melone said Verizon’s 3G network today is getting speeds of about 600 kbps to 1.4 mb, vs. the LTE network expects to get an average of 5 to 12 mbps. He said on average it will offer about a 10x speed increase. He admits it is a big drop. “But when you think about what they are doing…Unless they are doing really heavy duty streaming, you don’t need it. 600 kbps would provide excellent coverage…I don’t see that as an issue.”

New services and applications coming: In the future, there will be services and applications that will require the higher speeds, making the drop to 3G more painful. Melone reasons it won’t be an issue: “Once the customer gets used to that, going back to EV-DO — We’ll have two-thirds of the country covered.”

The 3G-4G hand-off: Melone said that users will be able to keep an active data session going — like streaming — when they drop from 4G to 3G, but going back to 4G won’t be as easy. The transition will only take place once the user goes idle.

Early-adopter advantage: Now of these things will really be a problem in the early days when very few devices are loading up the network. In fact, speeds could burst between 40 and 50 mbps. Verizon is expected to join Google’s Eric Schmidt on stage at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in January to release six smartphones and tablets using 4G.