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Verizon quietly unleashes its LTE monster, tripling 4G capacity in major cities

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We’ve already logged a few sightings of Verizon’s powerful new LTE network in New York and other cities, but in the last few months Verizon has been rapidly working behind the scenes on upgrading its LTE infrastructure across the country. Today on the third anniversary of its initial 4G network launch, Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) revealed to Gigaom that it has now set the new network beast loose in dozens of major markets across the country.

In the commercial corridors of major cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C.. Verizon has tripled its LTE capacity by tapping new airwaves, while in downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles it’s boosted capacity by 150 percent. The end result is that in cities where it’s completed the upgrade, customers will not only have access to much faster peak speeds — as high as 80 Mbps —  than its first LTE network could support but Verizon also will be able to support many more connections at faster speeds.

nicola-palmer-4G-LTE-366x251Verizon isn’t publicizing this network launch all that much, though it did make a brief mention of the new upgrades in its 3rd anniversary blog post this morning. But Verizon Wireless Chief Network Officer Nicola Palmer shared all of the details in an interview with me today.

Verizon is tapping the Advanced Wireless Services airwaves it acquired from the cable operators back in 2012, and these are no paltry frequencies. In every major city east of the Mississippi and in several western markets, Palmer said, Verizon has fielded LTE systems utilizing a full 40 MHz of spectrum, twice as big as the 20 MHz network it’s spent the last three years rolling out nationwide. In some cities it couldn’t piece together a 40 MHz block, but it has been able to get close: In San Francisco and Los Angeles, for instance, the new networks are hosted on 30 MHz of AWS spectrum.

Those setups could support theoretical speeds for 100 Mbps to 150 Mbps, though real-world speeds will be much slower, especially as more subscribers move onto the network. More importantly though, the upgrade gives Verizon much needed capacity.


Chasing mobile data demand

As Verizon has loaded its original LTE network with smartphones, its average speeds have started to suffer. Verizon lost it’s speed crown to AT&T(s t) earlier this year, and last month Verizon CFO Fran Shammo admitted that Verizon’s 4G network has begun to suffer from congestion problems in major cities.

Already two-thirds of all Verizon’s mobile data traffic has migrated onto its old LTE network, Palmer said. “This is the data network,” she said. “It’s carrying a lot of data, and it’s carrying it well.” But Palmer expects that data load to grow by a factor of six or seven times in the next few years, meaning Verizon had to find new airwaves on which to put that rapidly increasing number of LTE connections.

These new network upgrades should solve any capacity problems for the next few years. At the very least, they will restore Verizon’s LTE service to its former glory, but most likely customers in bigger cities with AWS-compatible phones will see dramatic speed increases in the near-term. Palmer said Verizon has already completed the upgrade on thousands of cell sites, and by year end it will have 5,000 AWS sites online with an additional 5,000 sites in various stages of completion.

Verizon's LTE coverage in dark red
Verizon’s LTE coverage in dark red

Not every device will connect to the network just yet, though Verizon began seeding the market with new AWS-capable phones back in the second quarter. Devices that can take advantage of this new network today — the iPhone(a aapl) 5s and 5c, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Motorola(s goog) Droid Maxx, Mini and Ultra, and several LTE modems — all have the necessary radios and software. Verizon will also be sending out over-the-air software updates to enable the AWS radios in the Galaxy Note 3 and other Android devices shortly.

About 15 percent of Verizon’s smartphone base can tap the new networks, but by the end of the year that number should be 20 percent, Palmer said. From this point forward nearly every new smartphone Verizon picks up will have AWS capabilities, she added.

Mobile carriers play catch-up

The other carriers are also working on various upgrades. T-Mobile(s tmus) recently doubled its LTE capacity in major cities putting it on par with Verizon and AT&T’s nationwide networks, and it has plans to deploy its own 40 MHz 4G configurations, giving it one of the most networks in the country. Sprint made a big splash with its Spark service launch earlier this month, but the initial launch still uses only 20 MHz of spectrum. Sprint can easily add capacity to Spark in the future, though, from its treasure trove of 2.5 GHz airwaves.

AT&T is a bit of unique situation. It doesn’t have the contiguous airwaves in most markets to launch a 40 MHz monster, but it is scouring its old 2G and 3G networks for spectrum to use for LTE. We’re already seeing new LTE networks in the PCS airwaves in NYC, but AT&T is working in other bands as well. So maybe AT&T won’t be able to field together the speed-demon that Verizon just deployed, but it will add a lot of capacity to its network, which will boost the overall quality for all its users.

Verizon has the upper hand for now — at least in the major cities — but it’s surprisingly not making a big deal out of its new super-charged LTE service . For instance, it has no plans on boosting its advertised network speeds beyond the 5-12 Mbps its been marketing for years. Palmer pointed out that networks are finicky creatures with speeds varying wildly depending on what city you’re located in, how close you are to a tower and how many other connections occupy the same cell.

“You could see 80 Mbps today and 20 Mbps tomorrow and then 10 Mbps the next day,” she said. Verizon wants to keep its networks powerful enough that they can maintain its advertised 5-12 Mbps baseline, she said, but if it manages to dramatically exceed consumer expectations on these new networks, so much the better.

Feature Image courtesy of Flickr user V&A Steamworks

41 Responses to “Verizon quietly unleashes its LTE monster, tripling 4G capacity in major cities”

  1. As the LTE Advanced networks are rolled out, data usage is growing exponentially still. Capacity usage as a percentage of available capacity will be down temporarily but shoot upwards of 70% usage within a year as more high speed smartphones and tablets get deployed. This will keep average customer access speeds well below expectations, till pico and femto cells are deployed across streets, buildings etc in their millions.

  2. ShopEonline

    Were extremely please with the speed for our business need here in Colorado and Atlanta. We noticed the increase in speeds with our new 5s, we decided purchase extra 5s for our team. Way to Go Verizon!

  3. I can report that right after the Kit Kat update to my Moto X, my data speeds went through the roof. I live in Chicago and I am seeing speeds up to anywhere between 30 to 80 mbps. I don’t know if Verizon flipped the switch on AWS or if the Kit Kat update also enabled the radios. The increased speeds are more consistent the closer you get to the city. In the suburbs its hit or miss. More hit than miss though.

  4. So this is a bit misleading. VZ does not have contiguous AWS spectrum, most of its licences are B & F which are each 10×10 (20 total). They are not adjacent and thus can not be combined into 20×20 MHz untill they launch carrier aggregation. So althought they can increase capacity 3X, peak speeds will remain the same or about 50 Mbps with Cat 3 devices.

    This should be corrected as they simply added more 10×10 MHz and do not have 20×20 Channels.

    The 15×15 or 30 Mhz claims are 10×10 + 5×5..

    • @Urgento: You’re incorrect. East of Mississippi, Verizon’s AWS spectrum holdings are mostly contiguous A+B or B+C. They used to own F Block which they swapped with T-Mobile (A) quite a while ago. That swap provided contiguity for both wireless operators.

      There are a very few markets where Verizon doesn’t have contiguity in the AWS, but even there they can deploy at least 10Mhz FDD LTE.

    • Andrew J Shepherd

      Urgento, you are incorrect. You must not have followed the FCC transactions that have occurred since VZW acquired the SpectrumCo-Cox AWS B block stash.

      VZW and T-Mobile have sliced, diced, and swapped numerous AWS licenses. For the most part, VZW has moved to the AWS A block, while in turn, T-Mobile has received the AWS F block.

      In many markets, that has created 15-20 MHz FDD contiguous blocks for both operators, respectively.


  5. They need to do something. Where I live their LTE has gone from 28M down/14M up to barely 2M down/0.5M up over the course of two years. It’s pathetic. Their LTE is now slower than OLD AT&T 3G was two years ago.

  6. I get plenty of speed out the AT&T network. Adding more doesn’t mean much due to the low data limits anyway from both carriers. Plus, you still can’t use data and voice at the same time on Verizon. Thanks, but I’ll stick with AT&T.

  7. Glenn Gore

    This is nice, but how about they finish the LTE overlay of their ENTIRE 3G network with LTE like they promised way back a couple years ago? Would someone PLEASE ask them when this project will actually be finished? Will it ever be?

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Glenn, according to Verizon it already has. Palmer said its LTE coverage is at 99.8 percent of its 3G network (EV-DO), and the only holes are really on the far fringes such as national parks. Of course, Verizon has suffered capacity problems in some big cities, which is booting people down to 3G, which you may be seeing. These upgrades are supposed to fix that.

  8. Chase Kaleikilo

    Does anyone know if this boost hit LA County, and not just Downtown LA? Ran a speedtest here in SFV and i clock in at 1.56 Mbps download speed on iphone 5s

    • Kevin Fitchard

      HI Chase, I would assume its mainly in downtown LA and other dense regions of the city for now, though Verizon is expanding beyond downtown cores. For instance in SF the upgrade is mainly in the financial district for now, but Verizon is going to expand it wherever it needs capacity. If you’re in routinely getting sub-2 MB speeds in your area though, I would assume its a prime candidate for the upgrade. Like Palmer said, it wants to maintain a baseline of at least 5 Mbps. And even if your device can’t receive AWS signals, moving devices off the 700 MHz network to the AWS network will clear up space on the 700 MHz network.

  9. Palmer said Verizon already completed the upgrade on thousands of cell sites, and by year end will have 5,000 AWS sites online with 5,000 more sites in various stages of completion”.
    Wut is and wut duz n AWS online site do? I hav the S4 wich received a phone update recently however during over the phone troubleshooting support by a Verizon tech. Therefore if there’s any sites that person to aws or radio settings, I’d like to look into them.
    And lastly…
    “Devices that can take advantage of this NEW NETWORK today (list of devices) all have the necessary radios and software. Verizon will also be sending out over-the-air software updates to enable the AWS radios in the other Android devices shortly”.
    My question is where can we/I verify manually on my phone that both my software update was activated or enabled after the update n manually make sure my Aws radio is enabled or configured n set to AWS? My phone is not rooted but this tech tweaked many data settings during troubleshooting including LTE bring chosen for the option I cannot remember right now.
    Manually what can I look for on my phone to make sure everything is configured properly regarding AWS n software enabled settings needed for the article’s topic?
    Thanks all

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Liam,

      Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for you. I will be writing update posts in the coming weeks about new devices supported on AWS in the coming weeks though.

  10. Alex Habba

    AWS is not for all devices. Some devices support it right now like the Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S4, some Droids, etc. When those take hold of the new LTE-AWS Network it should reduce 15-20% of the load on the standard LTE. Which could also be a plus for both mechanisms.

    • I live in Chicago and I can tell you that shortly after the Kit Kat update came through my data speeds went through the roof. In places where I had been getting 8Mbps I am now getting upwards of 50Mbps, so yes, the X has the radios.

  11. Tiedemann

    I think VZW flipped a switch in downtown LA over the weekend of November 9th and 10th. I went from 1 bar/dot and <1mbs to 4 bars/dots and 20mbs-30mbs on my iPad on the 37th floor of my office building. The service was barely useable (intermittent and slow) and I've been rock solid for over a month now at +20mbs.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Sorry Lancespahr, the HTC One can’t support it yet. It doesn’t list AWS in its band list, but that could just mean the spec is hidden and could be activated with a future software update.

  12. Kevin Fitchard

    Sorry, Eddie I wasn’t able to get a complete list. Palmer said that the upgrade is constant flux with new cities and new areas within cities coming online on a regular basis. For instance, parts of Manhattan are covered today, but all of Manhattan will be upgraded by year end. She said though this will be all major markets and anywhere Verizon is growing short of capacity.

  13. Is there a definitive list of metro areas (comprising the 15% thus far) that have the VZ upgrade? Thanks for clarifying there is an important nuance with regard to the radio and iPads with VZ capable LTE modems are not included.

  14. John Milner

    As a user in SF, I have not seen an improvement in data service, it does not work most of the time. Hopefully, this 150% increases has not been turned on yet, otherwise it was not enough.

    • Brent A. Thale

      This story is surely a joke, I am in downtown San Francisco right now and I often get tiny fractions of one megabit on my LTE iPad with Verizon, and this is from multiple locations in the financial district, not just one spot with bad reception.

    • Ditto for midtown Manhattan, particularly at rush hour. Massive dropouts from the west 50s-60s (through which I commute) have persisted for a long time; nothing has changed. Verizon just plain lost it in Manhattan over the past year or so. Impossible to stream music or Internet radio, and forget about video.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Romano, I agree, but Verizon also has to be realistic. It can’t make claims about a network launched only in big metro markets when its LTE network is nationwide. You may be able to get 80 Mbps in NYC or Chicago, but you can’t in Akron, Ohio.