NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s largest cellular operator, launched its Xi-branded LTE network last week, as expected, bringing fast mobile broadband to Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. And by fast, NTT DoCoMo means actual download speeds as high as 75 Mbps in airports, while users in most outdoor areas are experiencing roughly half of that throughput. TeleGeography today reports that the carrier plans to spend $3.6 billion on the 4G network through March 2013 in hopes that 25 percent of the operator’s 60 million subscribers will migrate to the new network by 2015.
To be sure, NTT DoCoMo is expected to face future competition from competing LTE networks. Our recent roundup of LTE around the globe notes that KDDI is already trialing LTE with plans for a commercial launch in 2012. Unlike the LTE plans here in the U.S., where the two largest carriers are utilizing the same frequency spectrum — LTE for AT&T (s t) and Verizon Wireless (s vz) will both use 700 MHz bands — Japan’s first two LTE networks use varying frequencies: NTT DoCoMo’s LTE runs in the 2 GHz band, while KDDI owns 800 MHz spectrum. Short of multi-band devices then, Japanese consumers won’t be easily switching between operators.
Taking a similar approach to Verizon Wireless, who launched an LTE network here earlier this month, NTT DoCoMo is initially only offering LTE data devices, such as USB sticks for notebooks. These dongles will fall back to the carrier’s 3G network in areas that lack 4G coverage. While Verizon is expected to launch LTE handsets as early as the first quarter of 2011, NTT DoCoMo is taking a more measured approach; it plans for LTE handsets near the end of next year. By taking its time, however, the Japanese carrier may offer something that Verizon initially won’t. Verizon’s first LTE handsets will use the faster network strictly for data, while TeleGeography says NTT DoCoMo could offer voice-over-LTE support.
Regardless of the wait for voice support, the world map showing LTE networks is starting to light up like a Christmas tree, with no signs of slowing down. While a gift to LTE proponents, the NTT DoCoMo launch is a figurative lump of coal, perhaps, to those supporting long-term WiMAX strategies.
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