LTE News Wrap: MetroPCS Ships LTE Smartphone, Verizon Talks VoLTE

We are in the middle of working on one of our famed in-depth Sidecut Reports so pardon the lack of posts… for your reading pleasure some links to mobile headlines in the news and our instant analysis of same, starting with MetroPCS making good on its pledge to ship the “first” LTE smartphone in the U.S.

The fine folks at Engadget have a good hands-on review and all the news, including the pricing which is $399 for the device and $50 a month for 1 GB of data, or $60 a month for unlimited data. While MetroPCS’s devices and plans aren’t meant for the top end of the market I think the company’s strategy of offering more horsepower to the prepaid crowd is a smart one. With more full-featured phones like this Samsung Galaxy Indulge MetroPCS can go a long way toward satisfying an audience that may not ever need or want a PC, laptop or any other Internet device.

While some folks may try to equate MetroPCS’s network with Verizon’s because they use the same base technology, Long Term Evolution or LTE, don’t be confused — MetroPCS is not in the big-bits game that Verizon is playing in, and as such its plans won’t ever truly compete with Verizon (or AT&T, or Sprint’s) ability to provide much faster download speeds. Though MetroPCS uses LTE it also uses small spectral “channels” which means you might see faster than 2G speeds but you won’t see anything close to Verizon’s advertised 5 Mbps to 12 Mbps or Sprint/Clearwire’s 2 Mbps to 6 Mbps for their WiMAX network.

But still — for its intended audience I think the MetroPCS LTE plan is a winner. On the recent Verizon earnings call one analyst asked a question that Verizon execs really didn’t answer — the question was, how is Verizon sure that people who pay $40 a month for a cell phone now will want to move to a big smartphone and monthly bills of $100 or more? One answer is that they might look at prepaid carriers like MetroPCS, who are aggressively moving upstream while keeping overall monthly costs low.

A LOT OF TALK ABOUT VOICE OVER LTE — BUT DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH

It was interesting to watch the news cycle spin about Verizon’s plan to demonstrate an early implementation of Voice over LTE technology at next week’s Mobile World Congress. (I wonder if many folks caught the fact that CNN had to backtrack from the original story to correct the delivery date of the service from this year to next year and maybe later. Certainly took a lot of luster off the “scoop.”)

People who have been watching LTE grow from idea to standard have been debating the right way to implement voice over the data-only service, and while there is some agreement about using VoLTE as the way forward it is still very early days for all involved. For the near future — maybe the next 3 to 5 years — pretty much every LTE smartphone from Verizon, AT&T or anyone else will likely use a 3G chip for all voice communications for the simple reason that the carriers’ 3G networks are already built, they work pretty darn well for voice and they don’t need to add any infrastructure to support the service.

And even though some are perhaps correctly calling cellular voice worthless my guess is that it will take at least the same 3 to 5 years for the carriers to wean themselves off the “minutes” chunk of your cellular bill since it is pure profit and people aren’t yet smart enough or willing to jump through the hoops necessary to run something like Skype or Tru on a smartphone for voice calls. Make no mistake, though, technology will win this march and eventually you will see data-only phones that make calls via VoLTE, Skype or some other VoIP over LTE or WiMAX. It will be fun to see if carriers still try to charge you voice minutes for voice calls made over a data connection. I say they will until someone markets an alternative, which may be a longer wait than you think.

Bottom line — VoLTE may be a neat demo next week but it isn’t going to cause much change in the way you use your smartphone or pay your bill, at least not for another couple years or so.

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