Verizon will start building LTE network No. 2 this year

Now that Verizon has closed its blockbuster spectrum deal with the cable operators it’s ready to break ground on its second 4G network. In an interview with FierceWireless, Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) CTO Nicola Palmer said Verizon would deploy 5,000 LTE cellsites this year in the Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) band, layering mobile data capacity onto the 4G network it’s already built in the 700 MHz band.

In 2014, Palmer added, Verizon will start building a much broader footprint in the new band. What’s more, Palmer said that Verizon would start selling its first AWS compatible devices in the next few months.

“You can’t have the network without compatible devices,” Palmer told Fierce’s Sue Marek. “We have already given the OEMs guidance on that strategy. The first half of this year we will see AWS-compatible devices in our lineup so when the network comes online in the second half, we will take advantage of that.”

There are some major implications in Verizon’s move:

  • Verizon is now ready to start focusing on capacity instead of coverage. Palmer said Verizon’s 700 MHz LTE network will cover 90 percent of the U.S. population this year, meaning there will be few populated places where Verizon customers can’t get a 4G signal. It has enough AWS spectrum to double its LTE capacity nationwide, and almost everywhere east of the Mississippi it can triple it. That means it will be able to support more 4G subscribers and more 4G devices and eventually it will be able to boost 4G speeds.
  • The AWS band uses 1700 MHz and 2100 MHz frequencies, which make it an ideal spectrum for urban deployments. The lower the frequency, the further radio waves propagate, so while 700 MHz was perfect for Verizon’s coverage network, you can expect Verizon to be more selective about where it builds the second network. It will likely target cities and other high-traffic areas and it may even USE AWS for its first indoor and outdoor small cells.
  • By moving to AWS, Verizon will actually have a 4G band in common with other North American carriers. T-Mobile’ and the Canadian operator use the band. AT&T owns AWS licenses as well and is already sells devices that support those frequencies (the iPhone 5 is one of them). Network fragmentation has been a huge problem in the U.S., requiring handset vendors to make different variants of their devices for different carriers. With the operators coalescing around AWS, we could get a step closer to a smartphones that work across all carriers’ networks.

Other operators have plans to launch LTE over a second band as well: AT&T will make use of its newly minted 4G band in the 2.3 GHz frequencies, while Sprint will refarm the 800 MHz airwaves currently occupied by its Nextel network for LTE. Both operators are still at least a year away from making those plans reality.

Verizon LTE footprint March 2013By putting LTE into a second band, Verizon could also become the first U.S. operator to start down the path toward the next-generation of mobile technology called LTE-Advanced. The first LTE-Advanced technique we’re likely to see is called carrier aggregation, which bonds two disparate spectrum bands together to create a single super-fast air link. Verizon could choose to merge its two LTE networks, effectively doubling the uplink and downlink speeds available to its customers.

Several U.S. operators — from Sprint(s s) and T-Mobile to Clearwire(s clwr) and Dish Network(s dish) — have talked a big game about LTE-Advanced, abusing the term to make their networks seem more sophisticated than they are. Ironically, Verizon has never made any boasts about LTE-Advanced, but it might well be the first U.S. operator that commercially implements the first LTE-Advanced technique.