YOU ARE AT:Carriers2013 Predictions: Carrier, Wi-Fi, M&A trends for 2013

2013 Predictions: Carrier, Wi-Fi, M&A trends for 2013

Editor’s Note: With 2013 now upon us, RCR Wireless News has gathered predictions from leading industry analysts and executives on what they expect to see in the new year.

As 2013 begins, predictions invariably are the attention grabbing headlines. However, trends and some predictability and draw from past performance. Carriers are the foundation for service delivery and the keystone of the mobile ecosystem. While there are many carrier trends to look out for, the focus here is the underlying bread and butter network foundation. LTE continues to draw industry excitement. Network expansion will play a role for years to come, but carrier planners and engineers diverge on data offload approaches choosing or forgoing Wi-Fi. Finally, let’s take a stab at mergers and acquisitions.

The LTE build out continues

This may seem like a no-brainer as carriers are in a rapid pace to expand or initiate their LTE footprint. Verizon Wireless has the first mover advantage, starting their LTE deployment in 2010. In the subsequent years, the carrier has accelerated its LTE buildout. What was supposed to be an end-of-year LTE footprint mirroring its 3G coverage (approximately 300 million people covered), Verizon Wireless now promises mid-2013. At the end of 2012, LTE covered about 80% of the U.S. population. Yet LTE build out will also further incorporate the 1.7/2.1 GHz (AWS) spectrum acquired from cable company partners in 2012.

Following fast, AT&T Mobility ended 2012 with 160 million pops covered. With its Project Velocity IP announcement, the company projects to cover 80% of the population (approximately 250 million pops) by the end 2013 with an ultimate goal to get to 300 million pops by the end of 2014. Like Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobiity will start to include AWS bands in their LTE buildout. With the 2.3
GHz (WCS) band win, 2013 will also kick-off the groundwork and planning for WCS-based LTE deployment.

Sprint Nextel ended 2012 with 49 markets covered, but without any indication of population covered. The carrier will feverishly be adding more 1.9 GHz (PCS)-based LTE markets to match its larger competitors. Sprint Nextel’s overall LTE path is also closely linked to Clearwire’s deployment schedule. When the Clearwire acquisition closes in mid-2013, it’s likely that Sprint Nextel would need to accelerate the original TD-LTE deployment schedule to keep in the LTE deployment race. In parallel, Softbank’s TD-LTE deployment experiences in Japan will serve Sprint Nextel well in planning for an expanded national TD-LTE footprint and crafting a faster than rivals LTE throughput experience using the deep 2.5 GHz spectrum portfolio.

Finally, T-Mobile USA will launch and continue its AWS-based LTE buildout in 2013. When the MetroPCS deal is complete, the carrier will start to integrate MetroPCS’ AWS assets in the deployment. To match larger rivals, the carrier will meet or beat 200 million people covered by the end of the year. Of course a large LTE footprint is a necessity to market an impending T-Mobile USA iPhone.

Wi-Fi: Some yes, some no

The carrier community has different views on Wi-Fi. Some carriers view Wi-Fi as a technology that complements its mobile services, providing a faster user experience at times even more advantageous than LTE. Other carriers are wary of possible security liability issues in the technology, and yet others have a deep enough spectrum portfolio that Wi-Fi investment make a near term commitment unnecessary. At the core of the Wi-Fi choice is cellular data offload capability. This is especially important in the context of smartphones data consumption as smartphone user numbers increase. In 2012, there may be hints on where the top four carriers shape up on Wi-Fi.

AT&T is “all-in” on Wi-Fi, finishing up 2012 with commitment for international Wi-Fi roaming standards and an additional “hot zone” expansion in Chicago. The carrier will continue to expand hotspots to claim the nation’s largest Wi-Fi provider. As AT&T continues its 2013 and beyond LTE buildout, small cells with Wi-Fi capability will be deployed to help bolster its hotspot count, now in excess of 31,000. The cable company alliance’s offering, CableWiFi (announced in 2012), is a direct rival to AT&T’s Wi-Fi efforts and claims over 50,000 national hotspots. In 2013, CableWiFi could see wholesale deals with mobile carriers. The most logical wholesale partner is Verizon Wireless, the buyer of the cable companies’ AWS spectrum. T-Mobile USA could be another partner as it looks to supplement its own Wi-Fi hotspot assets. Sprint Nextel, however, will stay the course on expanding its LTE capacity and furthering its unlimited data proposition through TD-LTE and the 2.5 GHz spectrum portfolio. Clearwire and TD-LTE will serve as its data offload strategy.

M&A

While 2012 saw deals between T-Mobile USA and MetroPCS, Softbank and Sprint Nextel, and Sprint Nextel and Clearwire, there is still room for consolidation. The most obvious candidate is regional carrier Leap Wireless. Though a Leap deal has been cited for many years, 2013 may be Leap’s year. The urgency is never greater as key competitors are scaling up. Though Dish Networks won its battle for terrestrial rights for its spectrum, it is imperative to enter the mobile space in 2013. Building out a national network is a stretch and capital intensive. Spectrum hosting is an option, but it needs core mobile expertise to succeed in the space. Sale of its spectrum, following the SpectrumCo model, could also be an option. Whatever the outcome, DISH needs to take action in 2013.

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