World travelers beware: LTE phones won't get 4G abroad

This edition of Ask Maggie addresses the question of whether you can take your 4G Verizon Wireless phone abroad and expect to roam on other 4G networks.

LTE may be the global standard for next-generation wireless networks, but that doesn't mean you can take your 4G Verizon Wireless phone abroad and expect to roam on other 4G networks.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain the sad reality of why you can't take a U.S. 4G LTE phone and expect to use it in Europe or anywhere else in the world where LTE is available. I also explain the difference between LTE and LTE-Advanced, and why it's not necessary to wait for the latest version of the technology to be deployed to buy a 4G smartphone.

International 4G roaming woes

Dear Maggie,
I'm an IT professional supporting several Verizon Wireless phones. Now that 4G LTE is increasingly available, my users want to upgrade, but several of them travel to Europe relatively consistently. What is the equivalent (if one exists) of 4G LTE in Europe (and beyond), and are the current crop of 4G LTE phones from Verizon able to be used overseas?

In a similar vein, does Vodaphones' ownership of Verizon Wireless have any effect on a convergence of standards?

And I love your column... learned more here than many other places I haunt.

Thanks,
Ernie

Dear Ernie,
I appreciate the kind words. I'm glad you've found the column useful.

Now to answer your question. LTE will be the global standard for all next-generation wireless networks in Europe and likely throughout the rest of the world. At one point, it wasn't clear whether another technology called WiMax might compete, but now it's clear that LTE will be the worldwide winner in next-generation wireless. The GSM Association and all major GSM operators in Europe have already designated LTE as their next-generation network technology.

That said, global roaming among 4G LTE networks isn't likely anytime soon. And there are several reasons for this. The first problem is that there simply aren't that many LTE networks deployed yet.

Germany and the Nordic countries, such as Sweden and Finland, are leading the way in terms of deploying commercial LTE services in Europe. But in other parts of Europe, such as France, Italy, and Spain, things are moving much more slowly. In some countries, operators still haven't bid on wireless spectrum that they will use to build the new 4G networks.

This is quite a different scenario compared with what happened when 3G networks were rolled out. Back then carriers in Europe were quick to jump on board. Carriers spent huge amounts of money on spectrum. But it took years before these new networks generated profits. Now many European carriers are gun-shy about investing too soon in building 4G networks.

But even once European carriers build their new 4G LTE networks, there will still be roaming issues. The problem is that the wireless operators in Europe and other parts of the world will be using different radio frequencies for their LTE services than U.S. wireless carriers.

A recent report published by the GSMA's Wireless Intelligence Service predicts that 38 different radio frequency combinations may be used in LTE deployments in the next few years. For example, operators in the U.S. are mostly using 700MHz spectrum to build their 4G LTE networks. But in parts of Europe operators are using 2.6 GHz. China is using 2.5 GHz. Japan is using 2.1 GHz. And many markets in Southeast Asia are using 1.8 GHz.

And devices built for one band of radio frequency won't work on a network that uses a different band, even though the underlying technology is the same. In other words a Verizon 4G LTE smartphone that operates on 700MHz spectrum in the U.S. will not operate on TeliaSonera's 4G LTE network in Sweden, which uses spectrum in the 1800 MHz band.

What this means for travelers is that they will likely have to wait a long time before wireless device can easily roam among 4G LTE networks.

As for Vodafone and its role in Verizon Wireless, the European-based carrier has a minority stake in Verizon Wireless. So for the most part, Verizon Communications calls the shots at Verizon Wireless.

That said, I think Vodafone's involvement in the company probably influenced Verizon's decision to use LTE over a competing technology. Verizon's execs also likely saw that most of the GSM carriers around the world were pushing for LTE, so I'm sure they recognized the value in Verizon adopting the same technology that most other carriers in the world planned to use.

Using a single dominant technology means operators can benefit from a wider ecosystem of infrastructure equipment suppliers, component suppliers and device makers. Verizon has seen first hand the limitations of using a less popular technology. While most of the world's carriers use GSM for 2G and 3G cellular service, Verizon used CDMA.

But I also think that Verizon's relationship with Vodafone may benefit foreign travelers in the future. Even though the LTE market may be fragmented worldwide for some time, Verizon Wireless will could strike roaming deals with Vodafone so that its future 4G LTE "world phones" could be built to work on some, if not all, Vodafone networks around the world. And it's very likely that many Vodafone 4G LTE devices could be built to work on Verizon's network here in the U.S.

I hope that answered your question. And thanks for your interest in the column! Good luck!

Will the real 4G LTE please stand up?

Dear Maggie,
Why is it that no one ever mentions that the LTE technology that's being deployed today isn't the official 4G technology described by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union)? AT&T and Verizon Wireless are deploying LTE, but not LTE-Advanced, which the ITU considers real 4G. When do you think U.S. carriers will deploy LTE Advanced? And do you think it's worth sitting out the LTE craze with a 3G device until the real 4G LTE Advanced is available?

Thanks,
Ken

Dear Ken,
What is considered true 4G is debatable. The ITU has changed its story a good bit on what it considers true 4G services . But you are correct that LTE-Advanced is likely what the agency will classify as true 4G. That said, the LTE service that Verizon has been offering is much faster than what people can expect on its 3G network. So it is indeed a generational shift for Verizon and its customers.

Even so, LTE Advanced will be even faster. Where LTE can in theory deliver speeds of 120 Mbps to 326 Mbps, LTE-Advanced will in theory be able to offer more than 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gbps downloads. Of course these are theoretical speeds, and real world download speeds depend on network congestion, the amount of spectrum used to deliver the service and a user's proximity to a cell tower. In general, Verizon claims its LTE service offers average downloads of 12Mbps.

The LTE-Advanced standard was just adopted in 2011, so there are currently no commercial networks using it and thus we don't have any real world, average speed tests to determine approximate speeds. But you can be sure it will be faster than current LTE deployments and as much as 40 times faster than 3G networks.

The deployment of LTE is still in its early stages. AT&T is just starting to roll-out its network in the U.S. And Sprint Nextel, which recently announced an LTE deployment, is also just getting started. Verizon is the furthest along in its deployments and it's still not finished. That said, Verizon has said publicly that LTE-Advanced is the next logical step in the evolution of its network. But the company is in no hurry to upgrade just yet.

Telecom infrastructure provider Ericsson has demonstrated some LTE-Advanced gear. And last year it said it expected to see deployments in 2013. My guess is that it will be at least a few years before there is widescale deployment of the technology.

So should you wait for the real 4G? I suppose you could. But given the fact that most people trade-in their phones every 18 months to two years, you could get a 4G LTE device today and possibly be ready for an upgrade in a couple of years when LTE-Advanced is coming online.

I've been using Verizon's 4G LTE MiFi hotspot at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, and I must say that the service is fast. It's a very noticeable improvement over 3G speeds. But LTE is a new technology. And there are drawbacks. Battery life on 4G devices can be limited, and Verizon in particular has suffered a few data outages recently. Still, I believe these issues are constantly being improved. If speed is important to you, then I'd say go ahead and buy a 4G LTE phone. Otherwise, you may want to wait a little bit longer until battery life is improved and network kinks are worked out. But you definitely don't need to wait for LTE-Advanced.

I hope that advice was helpful. Thanks for your interest in the column!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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