Verizon Wireless CTO dishes on 4G claims (Q&A)

Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone shares his thoughts on his competitors' claims that they too offer 4G wireless broadband services.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

LAS VEGAS-Verizon Wireless unveiled a slew of devices for its new 4G service here last week at the Consumer Electronics Show. But what does the No. 1 U.S. wireless carrier think of its competitors' 4G claims?

Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone Verizon Wireless

CNET caught up with Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone after the company's press conference here Thursday to get the dirt on what he really thinks about rivals' pronouncements that they're offering 4G wireless services that are comparable to Verizon's new LTE 4G service. Verizon Wireless announced its 4G LTE service in December. The new network gets average download speeds of between 5Mbps and 12Mbps. The company introduced 10 new smartphones and tablets at CES for the new network.

Verizon's rivals were hot on its heels with their own 4G announcements. Earlier in the week AT&T rebranded its 3G HSPA+ 4G. And T-Mobile USA, which has already been calling its HSPA+ network 4G, said it would double the download speeds on its service by the end of the year.

Melone shared his view on why he thinks Verizon has an edge over its competitors, despite their claims. And he defends Verizon's current 3G network, stating that once the iPhone comes to Verizon, the network will be ready.

The Q&A that follows is an excerpt of our conversation.

What do you think of AT&T's announcement this week that it is now calling its HSPA+ network 4G?
I have a couple of comments on that. First, it seems odd to me that if they feel they already have a 4G network with HSPA+ that they'd move so quickly to invest in a 4G network that uses LTE. Whether they call HSPA+ 4G or not, their investment and actions acknowledge that there is a substantial difference between the two technologies. Otherwise why would they be upgrading to LTE? Regardless, we know that customers will see a substantial difference between HSPA+ versus LTE. We know that's true. And they know that's true.

Do you think all this talk about what is 4G and what is not 4G is confusing for consumers?
These are all just labels. And labels don't really matter all that much to consumers. They are more interested in the experience they can get from the network. And on LTE they will be getting a significantly different experience.

Yes, but you are selling a "4G" service that many people say is faster than other 4G services. So don't you think the labels are a bit confusing?
Would I rather not see this happening? Yes, I do think it cheapens the 4G designation. Do I think that Verizon has an opportunity to tell our story about how LTE is different from these services? Yes, I think we do have an opportunity to do that. And we will make sure that customers understand there is a difference.

AT&T argues that Verizon's network is somewhat handicapped because when subscribers are not in 4G territory they will fall back to much slower 3G speeds on Verizon's EV-DO network. Meanwhile, AT&T has upgraded more than 80 percent of its footprint already with HSPA+, which is three or four times faster than EV-DO. So when customers can't LTE, they'll still be on a fast network. What is your response to this claim?
Our LTE network already reaches more than 100 million people. And before you blink, we'll be at 200 million pops. So the issue of coverage with LTE will be irrelevant soon enough. We also think our 3G network has a lot to offer. There are very few things that don't work on our 3G network today. Of course, we recognize that as new demanding applications come out, this will change. This is why we are moving to LTE now. By the time those applications are stretching our network, we will be ready.

T-Mobile USA also announced this week that it's doubling the speeds of its HSPA+ network this year. Is this even possible? Or do you think they are full of it?
The path that HSPA+ is on provides incremental enhancements to the standard via software and some hardware updates. So I am sure it's possible to squeeze more out of the technology. But LTE provides the next big leap in the technology. It's part of the same standards path as HSPA and HSPA+. So I am sure they are pushing the envelope on what can be done with HSPA+, but it doesn't match what LTE is capable of.

The real difference in the technologies is when you look at what happens on the edge of the cell network, where the signal is weaker and speeds decrease. We've stated that average speeds on our network are 5Mbps to 12Mbps for downloads. And on the cell edge people are getting 1Mbps to 3Mbps on average. For HSPA , I'd say that the download would be a quarter of that or less. Folks who understand these technologies would have a hard time arguing with that.

But T-Mobile is claiming that its HSPA+ network is getting average download speeds that are comparable to the low-end of Verizon's LTE speeds. Do you think that simply isn't true?
Do I believe that HSPA+ customers are getting on average 6Mbps or 7Mbps downloads? The answer is no. I don't believe those speeds can be sustained or represent the typical customer experience across the network. That might be the experience of a particular customer in a particular location, but it's not the wide-scale experience.

As smartphone makers introduce more sophisticated devices that can do more things and other data hungry devices like tablet PCs come on the market, there's going to be much more demand for wireless data services. Can the networks really keep up, especially when these networks are put to the test at large events, such as CES? We've had terrible connectivity issues here. How will Verizon and other carriers cope?
One of the reasons we are moving to LTE now is so that we can handle these big spikes in traffic. LTE can handle these types of events so much better than the current technology. We are pushing the envelope to get the latest and greatest, most cost efficient service that offers the highest speeds and performance. That's what is ironic about this debate over 4G. If you argue that HSPA+ is the same as our 4G LTE network, why do all these carriers have LTE on their road maps? The reason is that LTE has more headroom. So how can anyone argue that LTE doesn't have an advantage over HSPA+? I'm not suggesting that HSPA+ is not a good technology. It's a logical upgrade for T-Mobile and AT&T, which have already invested in the GSM and HSPA technologies. But it's difficult to say they are on par.

Shifting gears a little bit here, I have to ask: When is Verizon getting the iPhone? Lots of people were hoping and expecting it to be launched here at CES. And some people now believe it's coming right after CES. Can you say anything about it?
No comment.

All right, I understand you can't preannounce anything. But let's say that the iPhone does come to Verizon. Is the current 3G Verizon Wireless network ready for the potential onslaught of iPhone users?
I can't answer specifically about the iPhone. But in general, I feel very confident about our 3G and 4G networks. We have seen tremendous growth over the past 18 months on our network with the Android devices and other smartphones. We are adding more capacity to the 3G network in 2011 to meet whatever demands customers put on us. We have always been conservative in what we can promise our customers. And if we spend too much too early on building capacity, we've learned it doesn't matter because usage gets there soon enough anyway.

I've heard that Verizon Android users complain that they are starting to see data speeds slow on 3G. And a few people from San Francisco and New York have told me that they are getting dropped calls more now than they ever did before on Verizon. Have you heard anything about this?
No, I haven't heard that. As I said, I'm very confident about the network. But as you know, the nature of radio frequency technology is very localized. So it's possible that there are some isolated instances where something could have happened. We've been going around upgrading antennas to LTE, so it's possible that something could have happened in isolated areas with the upgrades. It may create dropped calls if the settings are not optimized or something. But I have not seen anything in the network to suggest that Android usage is having an adverse effect. In fact, I feel very good about Android usage on the 3G network.

So we will be ready for the iPhone customers from AT&T when they come. And we'll be ready for any other customers from Sprint and T-Mobile too. That's what we do. It's what we've been doing for 10 years. We aren't perfect, but we have the discipline to make sure we deliver what we promise to customers. So if that means investing a lot of money, we will. We have never been shy about that.

Our 4G strategy is not that mysterious. It's about getting spectrum and investing in the latest and greatest technology. It's a strategy that has served us well in the past. And if we're wrong, why is AT&T scrambling to catch up with its own LTE network? The only reason that T-Mobile isn't deploying LTE now is because they don't have the spectrum to do it. So they are using HSPA+ to transition. I'd do the same thing if I were them.