Verizon Wireless's 4G Blitzkrieg

We’ve already logged a few sightings of Verizon Wireless’s powerful new LTE network in New York and other cities, but in the past few months Verizon Wireless has been rapidly working behind the scenes to upgrade its LTE infrastructure across the country. Today, on the third anniversary of its initial 4G network launch, Verizon Wireless revealed to Gigaom that it has now set the new network beast loose in dozens of major markets around the U.S.

In the commercial corridors of such major cities as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., Verizon Wireless has tripled its LTE capacity by tapping new airwaves, while in downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles, it has boosted capacity 150 percent. The end result is that in cities where it has completed the upgrade, not only will customers have access to much faster peak speeds—as high as 80 Mbps—than its first LTE network could support, but also, Verizon Wireless will be able to support many more connections at faster speeds.

The company isn’t publicizing this network launch all that much, although it did make a brief mention of the new upgrades in its third anniversary blog post this morning. But Verizon Wireless Chief Network Officer Nicola Palmer shared all the details in an interview with me today.

Verizon Wireless is tapping the Advanced Wireless Services airwaves it acquired from the cable operators in 2012, and these are no paltry frequencies. In every major city east of the Mississippi and in several Western markets, Palmer said, Verizon Wireless has fielded LTE systems utilizing a full 40 MHz of spectrum, twice as big as the 20 MHz network it has spent the past three years rolling out nationwide. In some cities it couldn’t piece together a 40 MHz block, but it has been able to get close: In San Francisco and Los Angeles, for instance, the new networks are hosted on 30 MHz of AWS spectrum.

Those setups could support theoretical speeds of 100 Mbps to 150 Mbps, though real-world speeds will be much slower, especially as more subscribers move onto the network. More importantly, though, the upgrade gives Verizon Wireless much needed capacity.

As Verizon Wireless has loaded its original LTE network with smartphones, its average speeds have started to suffer. The company lost its speed crown to AT&T earlier this year, and last month Verizon Wireless’s chief financial officer, Fran Shammo, admitted that the company’s 4G network has begun to suffer from congestion problems in major cities.

Already two-thirds of all Verizon Wireless’s mobile data traffic has migrated onto its old LTE network, Palmer said. “This is the data network,” she said. “It’s carrying a lot of data, and it’s carrying it well.” But Palmer expects that data load to grow by a factor of six or seven in the next few years, meaning Verizon Wireless had to find new airwaves on which to put that rapidly increasing number of LTE connections.

These new network upgrades should solve any capacity problems for the next few years. At the very least, they will restore Verizon Wireless’s LTE service to its former glory, but most likely customers in bigger cities with AWS-compatible phones will see dramatic speed increases in the near term. Palmer said Verizon Wireless has already completed the upgrade on thousands of cell sites, and by year’s end it will have 5,000 AWS sites online with an additional 5,000 sites in various stages of completion.

Not every device will connect to the network just yet, though Verizon began seeding the market with new AWS-capable phones in the second quarter. Devices that can take advantage of this new network today—the iPhone 5S and 5C, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Motorola Droid Maxx, Mini, and Ultra, and several LTE modems—all have the necessary radios and software. Verizon Wireless will also be sending out over-the-air software updates to enable the AWS radios in the Galaxy Note 3 and other Android devices shortly.

About 15 percent of Verizon Wireless’s smartphone base can tap the new networks, but by the end of the year that number should be 20 percent, Palmer said. From this point on, nearly every new smartphone Verizon picks up will have AWS capabilities, she added.

The other carriers are also working on various upgrades. T-Mobile recently doubled its LTE capacity in major cities, putting it on par with Verizon Wireless’s and AT&T’s nationwide networks, and T-Mobile has plans to deploy its own 40 MHz 4G configurations. Sprint made a big splash with its Spark service launch earlier this month, but the initial launch still uses only 20 MHz of spectrum. Sprint can easily add capacity to Spark in the future, though, from its treasure trove of 2.5 GHz airwaves.

AT&T is in a bit of unique situation. It doesn’t have the contiguous airwaves in most markets to launch a 40 MHz monster, but it is scouring its old 2G and 3G networks for spectrum to use for LTE. We’re already seeing new LTE networks in the PCS airwaves in New York City, but AT&T is working in other bands as well. So maybe AT&T won’t be able to field the speed-demon that Verizon Wireless just deployed, but it will add a lot of capacity to its network, which will boost the overall quality for all its users.

Verizon Wireless has the upper hand for now—at least in the major cities—but surprisingly it’s not making a big deal out of its new supercharged LTE service. For instance, it has no plans to boost its advertised network speeds beyond the 5-12 Mbps it has been marketing for years. Palmer pointed out that networks are finicky creatures, with speeds varying wildly depending on what city you’re located in, how close you are to a tower, and how many other connections occupy the same cell.

“You could see 80 Mbps today, and 20 Mbps tomorrow, and then 10 Mbps the next day,” she said. Verizon Wireless wants to keep its networks powerful enough that they can maintain its advertised 5-12 Mbps baseline, she said, but if it manages to exceed consumer expectations dramatically on these new networks, so much the better.

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