Glancing back, 2010 has seen major upheaval in the mobile industry. Smartphone leaders have lost their footing, while upstarts grab market share. More people rely on the mobile Internet day in and day out to perform computing tasks. That mobile Internet has sped up with the introduction of 4G networks (and will only get faster). And fierce competition for business and consumer customers alike has driven prices downwards.
In 2011, many of these trends will continue to shape the path of the mobile industry, but more dramatic changes will unfold. Some technologies will win out over others, while companies may have to surrender to their competitors. As 2011 unfolds, this is what we expect to witness as the months roll by.
1. The Rise Of 4G
It's already here, at least in the largest cities across the United States. By the time 2011 closes out, significant portions of the country will be covered by not just one 4G network, but at least three.
AT&T is preparing to launch its long-term evolution (LTE) network in the middle of 2011. It aims to cover between 75 and 80 million points of presence (POPs) by the end of 2011, but it hasn't announced in which markets. While it may appear to be taking things slower than its rivals (and in fact, it is), AT&T is building up its HSPA network first. It will ramp speeds of HSPA+ up and up and up until LTE is ready. Right now, officially, it only offers speeds up to 7.2 Mbps. Those hungering for 4G speeds immediately will need to seek them elsewhere. How AT&T plans to attract customers with its more modestly paced roll-out, it hasn't said.
Sprint continues to deploy its WiMax network with partner Clearwire. Sprint says it had about 120 million POPs covered by the end of 2010 in about 70 markets. That number should swell to 200 million by the end of 2011, though the exact number of markets remains unknown. Sprint's real-world 4G speeds range between 2 Mbps and 7 Mbps.
T-Mobile rebranded its HSPA+ network as 4G, despite how the International Telecommunications Union defines 4G, and is aggressively speeding it up. It already had 200 million POPs blanketed with HSPA+ by the end of 2010 in 100 markets. It is offering speeds of 21 Mbps, and will increase that over time to 42 Mbps, 84 Mbps, and 168 Mbps.
Verizon Wireless launched its LTE network in late 2010, initially providing coverage to 38 markets and 60 airports. That covers about 110 million POPs. That number will increase over time, though Verizon has not named more markets. Verizon has only indicated that it will take until 2013 to complete its LTE network deployment. When first launched, real-world speeds seen on Verizon's 4G network ranged all the way up to 32 Mbps, though they averaged closer to 10 Mbps.
Make no mistake, 4G is going to play a big role in the long-term success of the wireless network operators over the coming year. Those whose networks consistently deliver the fastest and most reliable service will win out over the others.