LTE data roaming not happening anytime soon

One thing to think about as you consider that shiny new 4G phone purchase — if you are looking at the snazzy new LTE devices from Verizon Wireless or the upcoming ones being promised for later this year from AT&T, get used to the fact that your data service won’t “roam” when you are outside of your carrier’s 4G coverage area. Instead, you will likely drop back to 3G or slower service when roaming — and that’s going to be the case for quite some time.

Why is this happening? Mainly because the biggest carriers in the U.S. market, AT&T and Verizon, are using different parts of the 700 MHz frequency band for their LTE networks — and right now it’s cost- and management-prohibitive to put additional chips into the new phones just to support roaming onto another carrier’s service.

Fierce Wireless has a good recap of some hearings in Washington D.C. yesterday where smaller carriers are fighting the big boys, trying to get the gubmint to require that data roaming for 4G services in the 700 MHz band is made possible. There might eventually be some FCC prodding, but the bottom line for consumers is that this ain’t happening anytime soon.

Right now the 4G phones from Verizon as well as the forthcoming ones from AT&T are loaded with little radio chips, and there simply isn’t room or the budget for more. In AT&T’s case, the phones will need to support the company’s several flavors of 2G and 3G networks (EDGE and HSPA+), its forthcoming LTE network which will run on two different bands of spectrum (700 MHz and AWS, needing a separate chip for each), as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth — we are guessing that in a pinch if you are cold you can turn on all the radios and let the phone heat your house.

Customers who have purchased 4G devices from Sprint or Clearwire are also subject to this problem, mainly because their 4G implementation uses WiMAX at a frequency that no other major carrier has yet implemented. The Clearwire/Sprint network right now covers 71-plus markets, while the Verizon network is at 45 city markets and 60 airports, with plans to add another 140 to 170 by the end of the year. AT&T has not yet said how many markets it plans to cover with LTE in 2011, only that it will launch some services before year-end.

So for 4G data customers — when you are in your provider’s coverage area you are fine, but when you are roaming about you may be slowed back down to the world of 3G. And it’s going to be that way for a while.


About Paul Kapustka

Paul Kapustka is a longtime journalist who has spent more than two decades covering the information technology business, Paul most recently has been focusing on mobility and how it has changed the computing and collaborative landscape. His newest project outside Mobile Enterprise 360 is a research and analysis operation called WiFi Journal. He is also editor in chief of Mobile Sports Report, which covers the intersection of mobile technology and sports business. Paul is also the founder of Sidecut Reports, a research firm that covered the emergence of 4G technology in the cellular marketplace.