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After taking a pass with the iPhone 4S, Apple(s aapl) has finally welcomed LTE into its smartphone family. That means faster download and upload speeds to the iconic device, but the implications of a 4G iPhone on the wireless industry and on consumers are much greater than mere speed.
LTE isn’t just a faster technology, it’s a more efficient technology – carriers can pack a lot more bandwidth into any given chunk of spectrum with LTE than they can with older generation technologies. While many of you will laugh at this next statement, the large-scale adoption of LTE will make mobile data cheaper. It won’t happen immediately, and yes, most carriers will resist lowering prices with every fiber of their being, but it will happen. That’s simply the way competition works.
By 2013 we’ll have four nationwide carriers with LTE networks. Given all four LTE networks will have the same ingrained data-delivery efficiencies, it’s only a matter of time before one uses that advantage to start slashing per-gigabyte rates, thus setting off a price war. The carriers may not be saints, but they’re not idiots either. If they can halve their data plan pricing and still make a profit, they will – they just need competitive pressure to help that decision along.
Furthermore, the move from 3G to LTE isn’t a one-time bonus. LTE will beget LTE-Advanced. LTE-Advanced will beget new network topologies like small cells and heterogeneous networks (HetNets) all aimed at pumping gobs of cheap localized capacity into the network. The industry will add more parallel antennas to devices and towers, carriers will design their systems so phones can connect to multiple towers, even multiple networks simultaneously, and interference coordination technology will allow cells to be grouped together in huge clusters without canceling out each others’ signals.
With each new 4G iteration, networks will enjoy accompanying boost in capacity and efficiency. The costs of planning and deploying these networks will be enormous, but so will then increase in bandwidth available to any given subscriber. The same operational cost that goes into delivering a gigabyte of data today will deliver 10 GBs in the next few years. Ten years down the road 100 GBs could be delivered for the same price.
Why Apple is critical to this transformation
Without Apple embracing LTE that shift to cheaper mobile data isn’t going happen. Yes, LTE networks have started popping up all over the world without Apple’s help, but carriers can’t realize their operational efficiencies until they move the majority of their traffic and devices onto those new 4G networks.
The iPhone’s data hunger is ravenous. Network optimization and analytics firm Arieso estimates that the introduction of each new generation of iPhone produces a 40 percent increase in traffic over a carrier’s mobile network. If the iPhone 5’s data deluge doesn’t hit a new LTE network, it doesn’t just evaporate — it floods onto carriers’ 3G networks.
By placing even more burden on 3G, carriers would be forced to keep investing in them their legacy networks. Instead of plowing their billions of investment dollars into 4G networks, they would have to add more 3G capacity and devote more spectrum to maintaining older technologies. And once those investments are made, they’re sunk. Any megahertz devoted to 3G is going to remain 3G for the foreseeable future.
In Europe and other regions of the world behind the mobile broadband curve, a sans-LTE iPhone lessens the urgency to deploy the newest network technologies. If your single best selling smartphone model for the next nine months doesn’t support 4G, why should you? Android(s goog) handset makers like Samsung should be lauded for their efforts in propping up the LTE ecosystem, but Apple was the missing, critical strut. (For a more detailed analysis of Apple’s impact on LTE check out my GigaOM Pro report on the topic, though a subscription is required).
If Apple failed to produce a 4G iPhone, LTE’s progress – and the progression toward cheaper data – would have been hindered, not just for another twelve months but possibly several years. What radios the in the iPhone includes have a big impact on CTOs’ network decisions and CFOs capital investment decisions for the next year. The wireless industry isn’t the internet industry. These are big iron deployments we’re talking about, and those decisions have long-term consequences.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better
Unfortunately, carriers have taken advantage of transition from 3G to 4G to pull some pricing shenanigans. Verizon(s vz)(s vod) and AT&T(s t) both recently launched shared data plans, which lets their customers pool their devices into a single plan (a good thing), but also forces customers to double down on the voice and SMS services they’ve long been abandoning (a bad thing).
In Europe, there are indications that carriers will charge a premium for LTE access following the logic that faster connection speeds demand higher rates. It looks like carriers are milking their new investments for all they are worth, which is hardly surprising to many observers of the mobile industry. But I don’t think any of these business models are sustainable in the long-term.
It won’t be AT&T or Verizon, but we have two other nationwide operators in the US with plenty of initiative. Sprint(s s) has already extended its unlimited smartphone data plans to LTE where its customers can do far more damage than over its old CDMA networks. T-Mobile hasn’t yet released its pricing plans for LTE, but you can bet it will either match or discount the already cheap buckets of HSPA+ data it offers today (while T-Mobile didn’t get the iPhone today, it’s inevitable it will land the device). At that point we can leave it up to the market to do its work.