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The Spring of LTE

Real wireless networks are here, and Dallas consumers and companies are among the biggest beneficiaries in this wave of the Internet's evolution.
Illustration by Shawn Nielsen

Out-of-market companies considering a re-location to Dallas should give some thought as to what’s in the air here. This spring, the region’s mobile networks are ready to enable a flood of new applications and devices that allow for more multimedia applications for consumers and businesses.

The nation’s largest wireless service providers, Verizon and AT&T, have blanketed the Dallas area with long-term evolution (LTE) coverage since September 2011. But this year the devices and network performance are finally aligned to a point that some new ideas on how to use mobile networks may finally be unleashed.

Wireless network-testing firm RootMetrics says Dallas exceeds the national average for both download and upload speeds on its mobile networks. Across the five major cellular carriers, consumers average a download speed of 10.2 Mbit/s and an average upload speed of 4.5 Mbit/s. That compares favorably to the national average wireless download speed of 8.7 Mbit/s and average upload speed of 4 Mbit/s.

More network capacity is on the way. AT&T said in November it plans to invest $14 billion over the next three years to expand its wireline and wireless networks. The investment plan is called Project Velocity IP (VIP). It covers about 160 million points of presence (POPs) with LTE as of January 2013. But at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, AT&T execs said the company’s LTE network would cover 300 million POPs by 2014.

Although newer LTE networks are being added in more and more places, Dallas is one of the top 25 cities in the U.S. in terms of voice and data network performance, RootMetrics says. Despite what the companies’ TV commercials say, RootMetrics data shows that AT&T’s and Verizon’s LTE networks delivered similar average data speeds when measured in 2012.

This wireless transformation has surged ahead from where it was a year ago, thanks to major network investments from all the major national mobile service providers. Since RootMetrics first tested the Dallas market about two years ago, AT&T’s average download speed increased from 1.7 Mbit/s to 17.2 Mbit/s. Verizon’s average download speed increased from 760 Kbit/s to 11.4 Mbit/s and T-Mobile’s average download speed increased from 2.2 Mbit/s to 8.0 Mbit/s.

In the case of AT&T and Verizon, the two wireless service providers that cover the most ground, employ the most people, and serve the most businesses in North Texas, we saw mobile bandwidth increase by 10 times or more in just two years. That sort of increase not only changes how investment flows to companies that provide mobile services, but it also changes how devices are designed, how and where media is consumed, and how fast businesses can react to customers needs.

In the past 12 months, there have been a couple of interesting mile markers on the road to these faster and still barely explored new networks that are reaching every square inch of North Texas. The first is Dallas-based AT&T’s own improvement in how it enables new network applications. The second, MetroPCS’s acquisition by T-Mobile and the possibilities that combined firm has for giving consumers affordable LTE access. Lastly, we have a single device—a wireless camera—that represents all that is intriguing about what’s possible on these new networks.

In addition to capital investments, AT&T showed developers in January its latest application programming interfaces (APIs). These instructions allow programmers to build better apps on AT&T’s network, and better apps means more network usage.

One API of note is AT&T’s Call Management API, a set of instructions that allows for adding voice and SMS communications to an app. Depending on how it’s used in an app, that API could allow customers to decouple an existing AT&T phone number from a particular device. Programmers, for instance, could allow for tablets, other phones, web programs, and apps to make and receive calls, texts, and other digital services via existing customer phone numbers.

Down the road, this could allow the functionality and flexibility consumers enjoy from services like Google Voice, Skype, and Vonage on AT&T’s network with the activity attached to their current phone numbers and billed to their current wireless bill. Consumers would then have fewer passwords to wrangle and only one phone number to remember. I spotlight those sorts of APIs specifically because they allow for building apps that could let businesses dramatically improve customer service. Why have a phone tree when an interactive app could allow customers to get right to the person or group they need to reach?

The LTE Value Player
In October, T-Mobile USA announced it would buy Dallas-based MetroPCS in a deal that creates a wireless carrier with about 42.5 million subscribers and revenues of about $24.8 billion. In the deal, MetroPCS shareholders were promised $1.5 billion in cash and a 26 percent stake in the combined company. T-Mobile USA’s parent, Deutsche Telekom, will own the remaining 74 percent of the company.

The significance is that MetroPCS validated its approach in the market and, combined with T-Mobile, can now become a value player in the wireless market—a necessary contrast to Verizon and AT&T. This column has questioned MetroPCS’s low price strategy before. In February 2011, after MetroPCS started touting its LTE network capabilities, I wrote:

“The less-than-comprehensive LTE coverage and the feature-constrained handset turns off corporate customers, tech enthusiasts, and frequent travelers, who tend to be early tech adopters and among the most voracious consumers of mobile data. Indeed, MetroPCS embraces its ‘Wireless for All’ slogan with unlimited data plans and a simple pricing menu. But its first two moves into the mobile broadband future seem to add to the slogan in a whisper, ‘unless you want iPhone-like features on a nationwide network.’”

But a combination with T-Mobile, the fourth largest wireless provider, puts MetroPCS’s approach in a much different light. With the two companies combined, a better LTE experience will be possible since T-Mobile USA can provide the investment necessary to make use of the spectrum controlled by MetroPCS. Also, it can help the company’s current customers migrate off older cellular networks and offer a wide variety of payment plans, including contract and pay-as-you-go. The combined company will also be able to offer a wider selection of handsets—including iPhones—because it will have better buying power, as it now represents so many more customers nationwide.

With all these changes happening on the network side, logic follows that we’ll start seeing devices evolve beyond smartphones and tablets. I’ve found one device that embodies the new wireless evolution: the Samsung Galaxy Camera. I’m probably going to use column research as an excuse to buy one. 

The Networked Camera
The Samsung Galaxy Camera takes the idea of adding camera apps to your smartphone and turns it around. Now you add smartphone apps to your camera. The point-and-shoot camera runs on Google’s Android operating system, the world’s most popular OS, and behaves exactly the way a tablet or phone would—except that it lives inside a highly functional camera.

What’s more, the camera is the first that I’ve seen to be fully 4G-ready and able to upload 16-megapixel high-resolution photos from anywhere without the use of a PC and without requiring a Wi-Fi connection. Although smartphones can share photos capably, my experience with this device in stores is that it is a camera first. It blows any smartphone camera away with its ability to freeze motion, take snapshots in low light, and tastefully blur the backgrounds in portraits. It’s a real camera, it’s easy to use, and it’s always connected to the network.

The Galaxy Camera debuted as a $500 purchase, exclusively from AT&T, and it required a mobile data plan so you can really share photos from anywhere. But who wants to carry another device when so many have spent their adult lives paring down the number of gadgets they carry in their pockets to just one? Kevin Packingham, Samsung Mobile U.S.’s chief product officer, explains: “This set of users likes to communicate what’s happening in their lives through photography. There are a lot of different ways to do that now: Facebook, The Path, etc. And the phone is a good way to do to that, but it doesn’t solve all the different use cases for people who want that experience.”

A smarter, connected camera may not be your “must-have” gadget. Getting calls to roll from your mobile phone to a Skype-like experience on a tablet may not get you excited. But the point of this writing is that these are just the first steps in a new direction. An increase in network capacity has changed how devices are designed. The next change to occur is how people use the network and what they expect from it. The idea of a fully multimedia-enabled mobile network is today’s reality, and it’s well past time to start thinking about how your business will show up in this phase of the Internet’s evolution.

UPDATE: On March 11, RootMetrics published its LTE network performance review based on LTE data samples gathered from the 77 U.S. markets during the second half of 2012. Dallas-based AT&T, which had LTE technology in 47 of those markets at the time they were tested, was found to have the nation’s fastest average LTE download speeds. RootMetrics found that Verizon had the most coverage of any LTE network in the U.S. Both major carriers have a lot of coverage, bandwidth, and employees in the DFW area and, as the column above notes, this bodes well for businesses wanting to relocate here as well as those wanting to make mobile apps and data access a bigger part of how they work.