How AT&T, Nokia pulled Windows Phone into the 4G LTE world

The back story of how 4G LTE came to Windows Phone and how the Lumia 900 came to fruition.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
6 min read
Microsoft wasn't ready for LTE, until AT&T and Nokia came knocking. Nokia

The ink was barely dry on Nokia's deal with Microsoft to use Windows Phone more than a year ago when Nokia rushed to AT&T in an early bid to get a foothold back into the U.S.

AT&T was hesitant at first. The company's existing lineup of Windows Phone devices hadn't sold well, and Nokia hadn't had much of a presence in the U.S. AT&T was looking for a unique device suitable for its customers, but its principal hang-up was the lack of 4G LTE support, which was a dealbreaker.

So the two companies went to Microsoft, which wasn't prepared to move to 4G yet. Yes, LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, was part of Microsoft's road map, but not anytime soon.

"It certainly wasn't something they planned for," Jeff Bradley, senior vice president of devices, told CNET. "When you have a plan and working to execute it, and someone comes in and tells you to come up with a new plan, it's tough."

Spurred by Nokia and AT&T's request, Microsoft redrew its roadmap. What followed was a whirlwind schedule -- the phone came together far quicker than the typical 18- to 24-month development period -- and the emergence of the Lumia 900 at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

The speed at which everything came together underscores the importance that the Lumia 900 has to all parties involved. For Nokia, the phone represents its best shot to return to the U.S., where its once-dominant brand has faded nearly into obscurity. AT&T, meanwhile, wants to wean itself off its reliance on the iPhone and find a third alternative to the growing Android-iOS duopoly. The Lumia 900's success will also determine whether Microsoft's Windows Phone platform has a shot beyond being a niche player.

"It's extremely important," Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis, said of the Lumia 900. "If you want to succeed, you need to be a player in the U.S."

The phone launches on Sunday.

Early LTE ambitions
When Windows Phone first launched in October 2010, AT&T was the premier carrier partner, carrying three devices in its lineup. But even then, roughly a year before it would launch its 4G LTE network, AT&T was already talking about the combination of Windows Phone and LTE. Microsoft, however, didn't consider LTE a priority at that point.

Even back then AT&T was rooting for Microsoft to mount a comeback. None of the carriers want to be wholly reliant on two platforms, and AT&T in particular has had a long partnership with Microsoft. The software titan powers the company's U-Verse Internet-based TV service.

But AT&T's initial big bet on Windows Phone didn't really go anywhere, and the carrier spent the most of the year touting a more robust Android smartphone lineup before Apple's iPhone 4S finally showed up last October.

AT&T's commitment to carry the three Windows Phone devices -- one each from Samsung Electronics, HTC, and LG Electronics -- saw the phones selling at a disappointing rate. As a result, they were quickly discounted, and then given away in exchange for a two-year contract. T-Mobile USA also had its own Windows Phone early, while Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel eventually offered one each. None of them made a real impression on consumers.

The initial software, while unique looking, didn't offer many basic features, and the lack of applications was a major weakness for the platform. What were decent specifications for the phones at the time was quickly surpassed by dual-core processors and flashier hardware from the likes of Android and the iPhone. A muddled marketing campaign -- one that focused on spending less time with the phone -- failed to convince consumers to try out the new experience.

Still, when Nokia went to AT&T last year, there was some interest in coming back to Windows Phone. With Verizon Wireless already well on its way to covering the country with its super-fast LTE network, AT&T had its eyes on bolstering its LTE lineup as well.

Charting a new course
Microsoft had a fairly rigid list of features and specifications for Windows Phone that it kept in order to maintain a consistent level of quality in its phones. At that time, the list did not include LTE.

"The timeline for LTE moved up significantly," Bradley said.

Microsoft, for its part, has said LTE has always been part of its plans, although it never really provided specifics on timing.

"Yes, LTE was always part of our roadmap. It was important to our partners, so we prioritized delivery," Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Windows Phone, told CNET.

But the company wasn't prepared to quickly add a new wireless standard into its platform by itself.

"Microsoft still has to get used to the rapid innovation cycle in the wireless world," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics.

The Nokia Lumia 900 is a looker (photos)

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Nokia and AT&T, however, were able to lend their expertise during the development process.

Given the importance of the U.S. market, Nokia brought to bear its full resources, lending research and development and engineering talent to the joint effort, said Chris Weber, president of Nokia's North America business.

"Nokia was certainly a catalyst," Bradley said.

Teams in Finland, the U.S., and China worked on the Lumia 900, handing off much of the work to the next team to take advantage of the full day, according to Kevin Shields, senior vice president of product and program management for Nokia. Much of the design work was already done, as the Lumia 900 shares the same cues as the Lumia 800, and the N9 prototype before that.

AT&T's device team was based in Redmond, Wash., as well as a dedicated team from Nokia. Both were able to quickly get to the Microsoft campus to work on the project.

In San Diego, Qualcomm engineers had to do some special tinkering to one of its existing chips to ensure it worked with Windows Phone and could tap into the LTE network.

The joint resources accelerated what normally would be a lengthy development period -- particularly with the integration of new wireless technology -- and after roughly 10 months since Nokia talked to AT&T, the company had an LTE phone. The first batch of prototypes that represented the final product emerged shortly before CES.

The process didn't just benefit Nokia. The introduction of LTE into the Windows Phone platform meant others could play as well. As a result, AT&T got to hold up the HTC Titan II during its presentation at CES, while Nokia got to formally unveil the Lumia 900 at its own CES press conference. Executives, however, noted that HTC had more of a background role in the process.

No LTE, no dice
AT&T and Nokia's push to get Microsoft hustling into the 4G LTE world much sooner than it wanted could do a lot for the prospects of Windows Phone in the U.S. The effort has already paid off with a promised push by AT&T, which is boasting of a massive campaign to launch the device.

"There's no doubt Nokia is back in the U.S.," Weber said.

LTE, meanwhile, has become a vital component of any planned phone.

Verizon has indicated all of its smartphones will be LTE, while Sprint is eager to get more LTE products for its planned 4G network. A 3G Windows Phone would likely be a conversation nonstarter for any carrier now.

"The iPhone 4S was the last blockbuster phone that did not have LTE," Entner said. "Every significant phone launch will be with a device that has LTE."

When the Lumia 800 and the Lumia 710 debuted for Nokia in October, they were well received by the media and gadget enthusiasts. But Verizon, the largest wireless carrier in the U.S., remained skeptical. The company doesn't appear to be in any great rush to flock to Windows Phone, particularly as its last device, the HTC Trophy, barely register on the consumer radar. The carrier continues to sit on the sidelines.

But if the Lumia 900 is a success for AT&T, expect Verizon and Sprint to knock on Microsoft and Nokia's door. That's crucial if the Lumia line and Windows Phone in general wants to have sustained success in the mobile world.

"They still need a broader portfolio beyond one phone each at T-Mobile and AT&T," Greengart said.