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Wireless Network Wars

By Mark Green

In the past year, wireless communications giants have pumped time, energy and much money into Kentucky on network upgrades in a battle for commonwealth consumers. It’s a race to fulfill their competing claims in the wireless wars: fastest, most reliable, largest coverage area, fewest dropped calls, wireless broadband technology.

It’s meant hundreds of millions of dollars of spending here in recent years. It’s also building the infrastructure for an emerging data-consumption economy.

Verizon Wireless has 4G LTE network service in Louisville and recently launched it in Lexington, touting 10 times faster data speeds than its earlier 3G network. In the 10 years since becoming Verizon Wireless in 2000, the company has invested $345 million in its Kentucky network, according to Michelle Gilbert, the company’s public relations manager for Kentucky, Michigan and Indiana.

“It’s not just about the network, and it’s not just about the speeds. We build a lot of redundancy into our network so that there’s a tremendous amount of overlap, and there’s a tremendous amount of capacity,” said Gilbert. “We watch trends, and we increase capacity based on those trends so we’re staying ahead of our customers.”

AT&T likewise recently announced Kentucky mobile broadband network and coverage upgrades for improved service for customers. It added spectrum to more than 50 sites, and completed work on more than 100 new or upgraded cell sites.

From 2008 to 2010 alone, the company invested $525 million, according to AT&T Kentucky President Mary Pat Regan. The upgrades are expected to improve call reliability, enable more consistent network access and support increasing data traffic from growing demand, the company said.

AT&T also has a proposed merger in the works with T-Mobile, the No. 4 wireless service provider, that it hopes will be completed sometime in spring 2012; combining networks would fill some of the service gaps AT&T customers have experienced in the past. The company has committed to an $8 billion nationwide investment when the merger is completed.

Kelly Schlageter with Sprint media relations said the company does not release market-by-market investment dollars but through Dec. 1 had completed 230 wireless network upgrades in Kentucky in 2011 with another 100 planned the next four months.

In 2012, Schlageter said, Sprint begins rollout of its Network Vision to consolidate multiple technologies into one seamless network. That could take three to five years, according to previous company news releases. Incremental investment for the entire program totals $4 billion to $5 billion, Schlageter said.

Efficiency gains associated with Network Vision’s spectrum-use repurposing and consolidation will enhance Sprint’s coverage, particularly in-building experiences for customers, she said. ­­Sprint hasn’t announced a specific rollout schedule for Network Vision, Schlageter said, but it will be largely complete by the end of 2013 and include 4G LTE service everywhere. Sprint has 4G test sites now in areas of Louisville and Lexington.

“What I hear from customers all around the region is, they want seamless communications,” said Dave Weller, AT&T’s regional director for external affairs. “They want to be able to listen to their music connections, watch video, stay in touch with the world, and they want to do all of that seamlessly whether they’re at home, in the car or sitting in a rowboat in the middle of Lake Herrington.”

Regan said AT&T?“will continue to roll out 4G over the next coming months and years, and we will continue to upgrade our cell sites and continue to build.”
This is a critical commitment considering the industry’s data demand forecasts.
“We predict that [demand] will double or triple by 2015,” Regan said, “so we will have to have that capacity to provide the speeds that people want and the amount of data that they’re using.”

Data use’s capabilities valued
Following the introduction of smartphones, such as the iPhone in 2007, and their stable of data-hogging apps, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have eliminated unlimited data plans and introduced limited-data price points or slowed network data speeds. (The exception, Sprint, is heavily promoting its unlimited plan.) The moves force consumers to be mindful of, and responsible for, their data consumption.

The companies are banking on consumers continuing to value the data levels to which they’ve become accustomed.

“If you look at the United States, the predominance of people moving to smartphones – people see the value. They’re willing to spend an extra $30 a month on their data plan,” Gilbert said. “They justify it because of what they’re able to do – and what they’re able to do when they’re not at home or in the office. People are not only budgeting for it, they’re seeing the value it offers and the way that the data pricing is set. ”

At this point, a competitive market has given rise to some incredible capabilities on wireless networks, which support devices such as smartphones, tablet computers and wireless modems. Usage applications range from the expected – phone calls, texting and Internet access – to the exceptional – remotely controlled homes, intricate business interfaces and advanced healthcare.

Both AT&T and Verizon consider themselves “technology companies” with solutions for business and consumers. Some of the already-developed applications of the wireless technology would have been called mind boggling not long ago.

For example, AT&T recently partnered with a company called Zephyr, which makes the Bioharness. Combined with wireless technology over AT&T’s network, the harness can track vital statistics of populations such as athletes (it was used at last year’s NFL Combine) and have applications for others such as the elderly or acute emergency patients. AT&T has a division dedicated to emerging devices and is partnering with companies to develop or enable new uses for mobile broadband technology.

Verizon also strives to partner with companies that can maximize use of its network. Detroit automakers are a notable population, Gilbert said.

Tremendous amounts of data are collected during test drives for vehicles they hope to put into production. Previously, after a test run, they had to take the data to another location, upload it, analyze it and determine what tweaks they needed and go back for another test drive.

“Now, over our 4G network, they’re able to upload the information from the test track and that information can be viewed in real time and those tweaks can be made in real time,” Gilbert said. “In essence, what this is going to mean for the companies is they’re going to be able to get these cars out quicker to the consumers.”

Wireless access integral to worklife
According to a report published by the Pew Research Foundation, use of mobile devices (including laptops) to connect to the Internet has slowly overtaken use of desktop computers among 18- to 29-year-olds in the past decade. Pew data also indicates 35 percent of adults in the United States own smart phones, with 87 percent of those owners accessing email or Internet on their handheld devices; 68 percent do on a typical day.

Alex Cutadean is one of those consumers. An AT&T customer, he works producing videos primarily for websites of The Blood-Horse and The Horse, two Thoroughbred industry publications. He frequently uses his iPhone 4S to stream online audio for entertainment purposes and utilizes social media apps such as Facebook and Words with Friends. Cutadean also often uses network and mobile devices to support his work, which can occur at odd hours since horse races happen in time zones all over the world and online publishing can sometimes require a quick response.

“It enables me to do a lot more things. Especially with email, I feel like it makes me a more valuable employee because I’m always accessible and I do have access to make certain changes,” he said.

Cutadean has used his smartphone to conduct impromptu interviews, record audio or take notes and photos for work.

And beyond working via wireless networks with devices and programs, many companies are expanding into or springing directly to life from a field that is new to the mobile vernacular: apps.

Data apps: a new industry
According to International Data Corp. (IDC), a firm specializing in technology market research and analysis, service providers are reporting increases in mobile campaigns and apps by business customers trying improve productivity – not to mention bottom lines – through mobile business-to-business, business-to-employee and business-to-consumer interface.

Apps seem to be the way of the future for nearly anything one can dream up. From September 2009 to August 2011, the percentage of adult cell phone owners who downloaded an app rose from 22 percent to 38 percent, according to the Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Verizon customer Grant Ostrander works with Community Offers Kentucky, a new company that isn’t just using an app to complement the business – it is the business. Community Offers Kentucky provides a platform (an online version and a mobile app) for local businesses to hook up with potential customers and make tailored, easily updatable special offers to customers in what Ostrander refers to as micro-communities.

The business model, which was started in Austin, Texas, by friends of Ostrander and his business partner, Bo Harris, also utilizes other sales support programs such as loyalty cards, social media and QR codes. But the app is the commerce gateway, with searches available by zip code, neighborhood and type of business. Of course, the discounts or specials can be redeemed through the mobile device – no printing necessary.

So will the burgeoning wireless data network industry really offer significant answers as business owners, entrepreneurs and employees seek ways to improve efficiency and edge out the competition, or will the faster speeds and increased convenience provide a giant platform for procrastination and laziness?

More likely, the lines between business and personal life will simply blur as access – to faster networks and to one another – continues to increase.