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Q&A: Verizon's CTO digs into 4G

Dick Lynch discusses Verizon's plan to build its next-generation wireless networks and how much longer 3G can hold out.

BARCELONA--So what's a big CDMA operator like Verizon Wireless doing at a conference hosted by the GSM Association?

Well, it looks like the old technology wars that divided the wireless industry are being laid to rest as operators begin marching toward building the next-generation 4G networks. While there are still technology debates, most of the world's mobile operators, including nearly every GSM provider, are planning to use the same technology to build their 4G networks.

Dick Lynch,
Verizon CTO" credit="Verizon" />

This is a very big deal for the wireless industry, which has suffered from infighting and technology incompatibilities over the years.

As one of the biggest CDMA operators now embraces the same technology path as the GSM community, there is finally hope for peace and seamless worldwide roaming.

As a result, Verizon Wireless, the largest carrier in the U.S. and one of the largest CDMA operators in the world, made its first official appearance at the 2009 GSMA Mobile World Congress here this week. Dick Lynch, chief technology officer at parent company Verizon Communications, gave a keynote speech and dished out the details on the company's soon-to-be-built 4G wireless network that uses a technology called Long Term Evolution, or LTE.

CNET News sat down with Lynch after his speech to get more details on the network's launch and to find out what's happening with Verizon's Open Development Initiative. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

Q: This is your first time at Mobile World Congress, right? Why hasn't Verizon been here before? It is the largest wireless show in the world, after all.
Lynch: For one, we were invited this time.

Really, that's why you hadn't come before? You weren't invited?
Lynch: Not really. I'm joking. But seriously the more important question is what do we see in Mobile World Congress now? And the answer is, if you go back some years, we went down a certain technology path, and it wasn't well represented here. But now we've reached a point--and other carriers around the world--are reaching a point where we have to make a decision about 4G. And we made the choice of LTE. It also happens to be the path for GSM carriers, so it's a logical time for us to come together.

Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, said during his keynote speech this week that growth in mobile data will soon put a significant strain on current 3G networks. How much headroom does Verizon Wireless have left in its 3G network?
Lynch: In terms of adding more capacity, there's still a lot we can do. There's cell splitting, for example. But we're in a better position than Vittorio is. He has different amounts of spectrum in different countries, and so he has different technologies allocated for different spectrum bands. He is more limited too because of regulatory issues--whereas we have a lot more options and are able to grow.

But Verizon is working on its 4G network. This might suggest that Verizon is running out of 3G capacity. How long before Verizon's 3G network is tapped out?
Lynch: We could go for years on our 3G architecture by adding capacity. And there are a lot of things you can do to add capacity. But they're all more costly than moving to 4G, and they offer the same performance people experience today. And eventually, we think customers will find that insufficient for what they want to do in the future.

We can continue to add capacity, but we think in the next two to three to four years that consumer expectations will outclass the 3G network. That's why we are moving so quickly. We want to be there when the first wave of customers feels like 3G is not really fast enough.

How are you planning to roll out the new networks? Will there be devices that handle both 3G and 4G?
Lynch: Yes, there will devices that do both. What is important to our customers is ubiquity even from year one. So where LTE is available initially in our top markets, people will use that. And where it's not yet available, they'll fall back to EV-DO.

There will likely be more 3G coverage in year one than by year five. We will follow a similar plan to how we rolled out our 3G network. So initially there will be some subset of the entire country with 4G coverage, and we will expand that coverage every year.

How quickly will you be able to get LTE rolled out?
Lynch: We're going to follow the model we used in rolling out EV-DO. And we'll be aggressive about the roll-out in 2010. So if you look at the rate we did with EV-DO, I'd say for year one, we could do 25 to 30 major markets. That is probably reasonable. Just like we did with EV-DO, we will initially offer the service for PC cards and dongle devices. That's the easiest form factor, and it's the customer subset that can most benefit from the much faster speeds right way. After that we will follow with handsets.

During your keynote at Mobile World Congress, you outlined a road map for deploying LTE. Will the current economic environment affect those plans?
Lynch: If by the current economic environment, you mean Verizon's current position relative to the rest of the world, then what we have announced (Wednesday) is consistent with what we hope we can do in 2010. But I reserve the right to adjust that if things for Verizon get worse. If that were to happen, we may choose to adjust. But we are fairly bullish on our ability to do this.

Verizon announced the Open Device Initiative in late 2007, and you said during your keynote here that you think it's been a success. But I haven't seen any handsets announced, nor have I heard of any pricing plan for the service. So what's going on?
Lynch: Most of the early devices on ODI have been unique devices that are focused on specific applications. There are a couple that are using the network for telemetry in unusual places, and some other specific devices such as specialized laptops.

What about the handsets? I think that when this initiative was announced most people thought that Verizon was creating an environment where users could bring any handset to the Verizon network.
Lynch: Well, it typically takes about 18 to 24 months to develop and take to market a new handset. So if you're looking for phones, it's too soon. The fact that there aren't many handset manufacturers that have gone through the ODI certification process is more a result of how much time it takes to deliver that product than it has to do with us.

Also, we really look at ODI as a nontraditional catalyst for developing new products and applications (rather) than another way of offering phone service. That will be part of it, but there will also be devices like blood-pressure monitors that use the network.

I think you're starting from the premise that ODI is all about the consumer handset market, and I'm starting at the point of looking at it as the future vision of wireless connectivity. Consumers might not yet be aware of devices that could connect to this network.

You have explained that both on the Open Development network as well as on the new 4G LTE network you envision all kinds of devices being used instead of just handsets. How is that going to change your business model? You'll have to change or adapt the service plans, won't you?
Lynch: I think in the future we will see data pricing based on usage. We don't expect customers who have a device that works once a week and pushes 50 bytes across the network to pay the same as a customer using 50MB a day. So the rate will be variable based upon usage. There will be a variety of pricing arrangements to allow for aggregation.

So you don't see wireless broadband services being offered like traditional broadband? For example, at home I pay for a single broadband connection and I can attach any device to it. And I can use as many devices as I want on my network.
Lynch: No, I don't. The wireless network unlike our fiber network, Fios, has a capacity issue. On fiber, the bandwidth is yours and you pay for it. But in wireless you have resource scarcity. So someone using 50 times more bandwidth than everyone is using should be expected to pay more. That's why I think there will be usage-based plans. But that doesn't mean we can't package services to get a single price for different devices. We're still working on the pricing.