Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Will Apple finally embrace LTE? Imagining the possibilities of a 4G iPad 3

If the forthcoming iPad 3 sports LTE 4G mobile broadband, it would represent the first Apple device to use the warp speed mobile technology many competitors have already embraced. What does it mean for users, Apple, and carriers? And how would they all go about implementing it?
It’s all still unconfirmed reporting, but The Wall Street Journal claims (subscription required) versions of Apple’s much-anticipated iPad 3 will include support for 4G LTE mobile broadband from both Verizon Wireless and AT&T. The story cites only “people familiar with the matter,” and while the WSJ has a reasonable track record on preempting Apple announcements, the famously secretive company is — well, famously secretive. Few people are likely to know what Apple will announce in regard to the iPad 3 until Apple actually makes an announcement. The latest speculation is that Apple will announce the iPad 3 in early March, with units becoming available three to six weeks later.
If The Wall Street Journal has it right, what could LTE mean for buying an iPad 3, and the rest of the tablet market?

ipad camerasWhat would a 4G iPad bring?

The primary benefit of a 4G iPad to consumers would, of course, be more bandwidth while out and about. In theory, Verizon Wireless’s and AT&T’s existing LTE networks offer download speeds from 5Mbps to 12Mbps, with upload speeds from 2Mbps to 5Mbps. That would make things like multi-person mobile video conferencing a practical reality. Perhaps in less-boring terms, it also means users could likely watch high-definition television, movies, and other video content on an iPad without having to find a reliable Wi-Fi hotspot.
Verizon and AT&T’s LTE networks represent a significant advance over their existing 3G services. AT&T’s 3G network delivers download speeds of around 1.4Mbps, with about half the bandwidth (roughly 770Kbps) available for uploads. Verizon Wireless’s 3G network usually offers a little less bandwidth, with typical reports putting Verizon 3G at about 1Mbps downstream and about 750Kbps upstream. Of course, these figures vary widely: In some places AT&T routinely does a lot better, while in other locations Verizon is the clear 3G winner. Even 3G users in the same location at the same time can get different network performance, depending on the load on the carrier’s network, other nearby mobile users, local topography, battery levels, and a myriad of other factors. In theory, 4G LTE should offer everyday users about 10 times the downstream bandwidth of existing 3G mobile broadband.
The key words there are “in theory.” In most instances AT&T’s and Verizon’s existing 3G services don’t come close to matching their potential speeds. AT&T’s 3G service should peak at 7.2Mbps downstream, while Verizon’s should top out around 3.1Mbps. Virtually no 3G users on either carrier sees anything like this sort of 3G bandwidth in everyday use, even though their carrier’s networks (and their mobile devices) have the capability. The reasons are complex, and have to do with the frequencies each carrier can use in a particular location, the relative load on their network and cellular gear (which relates to the number of nearby network users and what they’re doing) as well as a particular user’s location, signal strength, movement, and device.

Who benefits from LTE?

As AT&T and Verizon Wireless have repeatedly complained, mobile users’ seemingly insatiable demand for mobile data is not only putting tremendous strain on their cell equipment, but on their network backhaul as well (the hard lines that cell towers connect to). The companies’ existing 3G users want more bandwidth than either company can deliver, and that’s why both companies have had to raise costs and resort to practices like data caps to persuade people notto use 3G service as heavily. Or at least to pay exorbitantly for the privilege.
So, one way to look at Verizon’s and AT&T’s 4G LTE services is that they’re rolling out technology that enables customers to put even greater strains on their already over-taxed networks. It’s an over-simplification, but it holds water: If the nation’s top two mobile carriers can’t keep up with the mobile data demands of existing 3G users, how is adding the even heavier demands of 4G going to help?
The short answer is that it won’t help consumers much in the short term. Although many individual users will see instances where 4G LTE outperforms 3G, to the extent that performance is constrained by provider’s backhaul, local topography, signal strength, and other factors vary greatly. And let’s not forget that, so far, Verizon has had some difficulty just keeping its 4G service operational.
So if consumers don’t benefit much from an LTE iPad, who does benefit? Apple and the carriers.
Apple wins because it gets an important feather in its cap: The market-leading iPad stays ahead of the pack by embracing top-tier mobile technology. Even if most everyday users won’t see huge improvements from LTE, including LTE insulates the iPad from criticism that it lags behind competitive products. Given Apple’s massive buying power and supply chain expertise, it’s quite possible Apple can produce an LTE iPad far less expensively than its competition. Other tablet makers already have trouble competing with the iPad 2 on a price-to-features basis, bundling LTE into the iPad 3 could make that contrast even greater.
LTE has major advantages for carriers too, especially over the long term—although that term may be longer than the usable lifespan of an iPad 3. Managing traffic on an LTE network takes about half the resources of managing equivalent traffic on a 3G network. Looking out further, carriers will eventually phase out 2G, EDGE, and 3G services, and move voice services to LTE and its follow-on technologies. In theory — those key words again! — carriers should eventually be able to push LTE technology hard enough to offer as much as 100 Mbps downstream bandwidth. That’s fast enough to download an HD movie in under six minutes. In theory. Putting LTE in the iPad 3 lets the device be a transitional product that pushes some ardent mobile data users to the carriers’ preferred technology.

The most likely scenario

If LTE is coming to the iPad 3, it will be an add-on option, much like 3G capability is with the iPad 2. Don’t expect Apple to abandon the idea of selling a starter Wi-Fi-only iPad for $499—after all, the company has had no trouble selling as many as it can make. That means we can expect six different price points for the iPad 3: three WiFi-only models with increasing amounts of storage, and the same Wi-Fi-and-storage options coupled with 4G service at higher price points. Apple currently charges a $130 premium for packing 3G capability into an iPad: there’s no word on how much adding 4G to an iPad will increase the sale price, but it’s unlikely to be less than $130. Again, it isn’t having any trouble selling them.
using-ipadCould we be looking at nine different iPad 3 models? Three with Wi-Fi, three with LTE, and another three with the existing 3G technology? It seems unlikely. The LTE radios Apple would have to build into an iPad to support LTE 4G service on either Verizon or AT&T’s network would also be able to drop down to 3G service on those networks. Neither operator has enough LTE coverage to make 4G-only devices a practical reality. (Just look at their LTE phone offerings: All drop down to 3G when LTE is not available.) If Apple puts LTE 4G into the iPad 3, there won’t be a separate iPad 3 with 3G capability.
It does seem likely that an iPad 3 with LTE service on Verizon’s network would not work with LTE services from AT&T. Verizon Wireless and AT&T operate their 4G services on different frequency sets: they’re not interchangeable. It is possible Apple has the clout to build LTE-capable radios that would function on both networks, but it’s not clear that they have any incentive to do so — and Verizon and AT&T would almost certainly resist the idea of customers being able to hop between carriers on a whim.
Another variable is LTE service outside the United States. European LTE services operate in different frequency blocks than either AT&T and Verizon, and LTE service in Japan is in a significantly different portion of the spectrum. Although Apple made real strides with the iPhone 4S as a “world” phone, it seems unlikely the company would incur the per-unit cost of making a single LTE radio that could support a good range of international LTE services. That might happen in time, but seems improbable in the current market.

battery-life-indicatorPower play

As with the current generation of LTE smartphones, if the iPad 3 includes LTE capability, it’s going to have a significant impact on battery life. LTE smartphones are struggling to run for eight hours. Although the iPad 3 has a lot more room for batteries, it will also have a faster processor, more storage, and a much larger display to illuminate and manage. Apple likes to tout the iPad 2 has having 10 hours of battery life — up to 9 hours with 3G. The iPad 3 will almost certainly have at least the same Wi-Fi battery life as the iPad 2, but a 4G radio is going to have an impact. Don’t be surprised if an iPad 3 using 4G LTE can only handle about six to eight hours of LTE use.

What about Sprint and T-Mobile?

While the iPhone is available from Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint (as well as C Spire), only AT&T and Verizon offer the 3G iPad. Although Sprint will be launching LTE services this year, if the iPad 3 comes to Sprint, it will almost certainly be by falling back to 3G technology, rather than using 4G LTE. Apple will not likely make a version of the iPad 3 supporting Sprint’s existing WiMax services — no Apple mobile products have ever supported WiMax, and with the technology slated to be phased out, the move wouldn’t make any sense now. Similarly, Apple doesn’t make any of its products (including the iPhone) compatible with T-Mobile’s specialized HSPA+ services: It’s hard to believe Apple would decide to make a special version of the iPad 3 just for T-Mobile.


The real question mark for an LTE iPad 3 would come down to billing for LTE services. Currently, AT&T; and Verizon offer pay-as-you-go billing for iPad users, with no contract required. AT&T starts off at $15 per month for up to 250MB of mobile data, scaling to $50 a month for up to 5GB. Verizon starts at $30 a month for 2GB, with 10GB a month available for $80. In either case, if users don’t use 3G services in a particular month, they don’t pay a cent.
Although mobile users are accustomed to making two-year commitments for phones, so far tablet users are averse to the same type of commitments, so it seems likely both AT&T and Verizon will stick to no-contact pay-as-you-go services for a hypothetical LTE iPad 3. But the rate structure is anybody’s guess. In theory, an LTE device on either AT&T’s of Verizon’s networks could eat through a 250 MB monthly data plan in as little as three minutes. Clearly, the data tiers for existing 3G service on the iPad will be impractical. Carriers will have to increase the tiers: the question is how they will change the pricing structure. And while a small subset of tablet users would likely pay for LTE whatever the cost, consumers don’t seem to find mobile broadband as important for tablets as it is for phones: recent studies find more than half of tablet owners stick to Wi-Fi.

apple-ipad-2What if the iPad 2 stuck around?

Here’s another variable to throw into the mix: Just as Apple has kept the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS around, Apple could decide to keep the iPad 2 on the market after the introduction of the iPad 3, albeit at a lower price point. A cheaper iPad 2 would enable Apple to compete easily with Android tablet manufacturers (like Amazon) that are undercutting the iPad on price. If the iPad 2 dropped to (say) $299 with the introduction of the iPad 3, suddenly the $199 Kindle Fire becomes a lot less compelling. And there’s no reason those less-expensive iPad 2′s wouldn’t still be available with optional 3G capability.


Even if 4G LTE capability in the iPad 3 doesn’t bring much to consumers — and could be astonishingly expensive for heavy data users — the move could be a solid marketing win for Apple, helping cement the iPad’s dominant position the tablet market. Just like adding a (low quality, inferior) camera to the iPad 2 let Apple tick an important marketing checkbox relative to other tablets (“has rear-facing camera”), 4G LTE would raise the bar for what other tablets would need to compete head-to-head with the iPad. Even if very few people use it.

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