The CES 2012 has come and gone and I am quite amazed about the kind of spin even some technically sound German tech websites (here and here) have put on US LTE smartphones and why we are not seeing them over here in Europe. Their spin is that the US is far advanced with their LTE smartphones and Europe is lagging behind. Actually it's quite the other way around if you don't let yourself be blinded by the words LTE and 4G. Here's why:
In the US, carriers like Verizon and Sprint have a problem with their CDMA networks: They are quite limited in terms of performance and capacity in their current deployment state to a few hundred kilobits up to perhaps a megabit or two per second per user. The development on this radio technology has come to an end, quite to the contrary to W-CDMA (UMTS) which goes from strength to strength with its HSPA evolution path. Verizon's and Sprint's networks have become crowded and they had to resort to introduce LTE as quickly as possible to get further capacity and also higher speeds per user. The downside of this is that current Verizon phones run two radio chips simultaneously, one for LTE data and one for CDMA over which voice services are handled. As a result the smartphones are bulky and battery performance is an issue. For details see here.
AT&T is in a slightly better position with their HSPA network as they could build out their network to perform well and offer sufficient capacity. It would spare them the trouble of dual radio devices and the issues described above by going along this route for smartphones. AT&T may opt for CS-Fallback for voice instead of dual radio but the downside of that would be significantly longer call establishment times and higher call setup failure rates (at least by European standards). So they could do the smart thing and use LTE for dongles, tablets and other non voice devices for the moment. But it seems everything that is not LTE these days in the US is seen as inferior by the public and it's difficult to market around it. It's true, LTE is superior for pure data services on a 20 MHz carrier (only used in in Europe for the moment) but not with the 10 MHz LTE carriers used in the US and not for smartphones were a quick and reliable voice service is still important.
Let's have a look to Europe. It is true that in most countries, LTE is not yet deployed. There are some exceptions, notably the nordic countries and Germany. But here, the choice of all network operators has been to focus on data only devices for LTE. With the introduction of HSPA+ and data rates well in the 30 MBit/s range in unloaded cells when HSPA+ with dual carrier is used, the technology can deliver at least as good a throughput as 10 MHz LTE deployments. In addition, voice service is integrated, which means no bulky smartphones due to dual radio are necessary or CS fallback ruining your call setup performance. While AT&T's HSPA network is under constant criticism, HSPA networks over here perform well and there are no signs that this will change anytime soon. So offloading the dongle users to LTE that use much more data than smartphones anyway and keep the smartphones on the evolving HSPA network is the much smarter choice. And by the way HSPA+ networks are still assumed to be 3G over here in Europe and don't have to be marketed as 4G like in the US.
I can see why the mainstream press is easily fooled by terms such as 4G and LTE which are newer than 3G and UMTS but for smartphones, well built UMTS networks continue to outperform LTE on smartphones. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with LTE, it's a great technology, but until the voice issue is solved in one way or another it just doesn't make sense for smartphones.
The more time that passes by the more it seems likely to me that dual radio smartphones will shrink in size and the power consumption overhead by dual radio diminishes. Once those two values are right it might be just another solution to the voice problem, even for European operators and users.