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LTE subscribers to hit 200 million by 2015

Dual-mode smartphones and devices that support both 3G and LTE will lead to millions of new wireless broadband customers, says new report from Maravedis.

The number of LTE subscribers around the world will surpass 200 million in another five years, according to a new report released Monday by research firm Maravedis.

Mobile operators committed to LTE (Long-Term Evolution) wireless broadband will pick up more customers over these next five years by offering dual-mode devices that can use both 3G and LTE, says the new report, called "The Top 25 LTE Operator Commitments: Deployment Scenarios and Growth Opportunities." As part of its study, Maravedis spoke with executives from mobile carriers around the world to learn about their plans and their challenges in rolling out LTE.

Hit by customers downloading and consuming larger amounts of data, LTE proponents such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T are eying LTE as the technology to drive their upcoming 4G networks. As LTE offers higher bandwidth and greater capacity than existing 3G networks, carriers are hoping to take some of the strain off their current back end and do a better job of retaining customers.

Most of the carriers interviewed by Maravedis are following a common path of moving from HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access), then to HSPA+, and finally to LTE. But some, including Verizon Wireless, are taking a different path of evolving from EVDO (Evolution Data Only/Evolution Data Optimized) to CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) before hitting LTE.

Over the next two years, LTE activity is likely to intensify in North America and parts of Asia, with 80 percent of the top 25 carriers committed to LTE already having chosen vendors to conduct their initial trials. LTE deployments will build over the next few years, with the majority occurring from 2011 to 2013, according to the study.

Though Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and other carriers have aggressive plans to roll out LTE, they do face a number of challenges, according to Maravedis. The allocation and regulation of spectrum space, the availability of LTE devices, limitations in global roaming, and the problem of providing voice over LTE are just a few of the issues expressed by executives interviewed for the study.

For these and other reasons, much of the LTE rollout over the next few years will be done in conjunction with 3G, according to Maravedis. During this time, LTE will likely serve as an overlay network with a fallback to 3G. For the near future, LTE will be deployed to unused or new frequencies; over the next 10 years, carriers will start to move their existing 3G spectrum to LTE.

The end of 2009 saw a total of 4.7 billion mobile subscribers across the globe, according to Maravedis. The top 25 mobile operators committed to LTE accounted for almost 22 percent of those subscribers, or 1 billion in all. Of those, 280 million customers currently have 3G phones and mobile devices that use Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS), a 3G service that sends voice, text, video, and multimedia at speeds potentially as high as 2 megabits per second.

In another five years, the total number of customers with 3G/UMTS devices alone will reach 1 billion, while 226 million of them will use dual-mode products that support 3G and LTE.

Maravedis compiled its report by speaking with mobile carriers around the world who have announced plans to deploy LTE networks over the next two to three years. The research company said it also checked online resources, financial reports, and other sources of data.