Verizon's 4G network: Can you hear me now?

Verizon Wireless suffered its second 4G LTE data outage. Is Big Red losing its reliability edge?

Verizon Wireless's claims of having the most reliable wireless network are being tested, with the company experiencing two outages on its new 4G LTE network this month.

The latest outage began in the wee hours of the morning Wednesday and affected 4G customers across the nation . From New York City to Denver to Washington state, customers complained that they could not access the 4G data network. Some customers said that they weren't even able to access the 3G wireless service, despite Verizon's claims that this network was not affected.

By mid-morning on the East Coast, Verizon said service had been restored.

"Verizon Wireless 4G LTE service is returning to normal this morning after company engineers worked to resolve an issue with the 4G network during the early morning hours today," the company said in a statement e-mailed to CNET. "Throughout this time, 4G LTE customers were able to make voice calls and send and receive text messages. The 3G data network operated normally."

A similar outage occurred December 6, when customers across the U.S. were able to only intermittently access 4G data . The carrier took about a day and a half to resolve that glitch.

It's not unusual for wireless carriers and other companies to experience network issues occasionally. No network is up 100 percent of the time. But the fact that these outages happened so close together and the fact that they are happening to Verizon Wireless, a company that touts itself as the most reliable network in the U.S., makes it notable.

"The big attraction for Verizon is its network superiority," said Roger Entner, founder of the market research firm Recon Analytics. "People pay a premium for this superiority. But if that goes away, they are merely expensive."

Indeed, Verizon is almost fanatical about its network reliability, Entner said. And in its marketing, it differentiates itself from competitors such as AT&T by pointing to its network reliability. Who could forget Verizon's famous television ad campaign, "Can you hear me now?" Verizon has won accolades from consumer groups for its reliable network. And this August, J.D. Power and Associates crowned it the nation's most reliable wireless network , again.

Verizon hasn't offered much explanation for why its 4G wireless network is experiencing outages. But given that Verizon is the first major wireless operator in the world to deploy the new 4G LTE technology on such a large scale, it's not surprising that it would experience hiccups in service, Entner said.

The new network Verizon is deploying is based on a new technology called LTE. And the architecture for the network is very different from the traditional cell phone network, which is based on a technology known as CDMA. While the traditional network uses a combination of circuit switched and packet switched technologies, LTE uses an entirely packet switched technology. This means that the network itself operates much like the Internet.

This new packet network offers many benefits to Verizon and its customers. It not only significantly increases the capacity of the network, so that Verizon can offer faster speed Internet service, it also offers network efficiencies, so Verizon can serve more subscribers at a lower cost.

But as Verizon transitions from one network to another, Entner said, there is much to learn.

"When you are the first carrier in the world to really deploy LTE in any significant scale, there are going to be issues," he said. "Verizon has no one else to look to, to learn the painful lessons of deploying this network. The issues they're experiencing are likely growing pains. And they're to be expected."

Indeed, Verizon has been expanding its 4G LTE network at a rapid pace. A year ago, the company launched the network in 38 markets. By the end of this year, it's expected to have 190 markets and more than 200 million customers able to access the LTE network. It has introduced several handsets that use the 4G LTE network as well.

The quick expansion and the increasing number of users on the network, who are likely using more data than ever before, is probably what's contributed to the network outages.

Entner said it's a good sign that the outages have all begun in the middle of the night when network traffic volumes are at their lowest. He said this means the outages are likely being caused by upgrades and patches to the network. Unlike some wireless operators, Verizon schedules most of its upgrades at night to mitigate disruption to consumers, he said. But with a new network, issues are bound to come up and one glitch can cascade affecting not just one region of the country but multiple regions.

Entner explained that similar issues were common in the early 1990s when cellphones first became popular. Wireless operators were learning how to deploy and scale the networks and at times the networks would get overloaded with callers, completely shutting down service.

"The carriers had to learn how the network worked and how people used it," he said. "The same thing is likely happening here. There's a steep learning curve when you're first."

Unfortunately for Verizon's 4G LTE subscribers, they may suffer the consequences of Verizon's lessons. But Entner believes Verizon's reputation and track record is still strong enough to weather the storm.

Unlike the recent Research In Motion BlackBerry outage, Verizon seems to be resolving the issues relatively quickly. A BlackBerry outage earlier this year knocked out e-mail and messaging service throughout the world for three or four days.

"It's a small set back," he said. "As long as these outages don't become a trend, Verizon will be all right. But if this continues another year or two, that could be a completely different story."

 

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