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LTE: Late, Tempting, and Elusive

Summary: To some, LTE is the latest mobile wonder technology – bigger, faster, better. But how do institutional investors see it?

AreteThis is a Guest Briefing from Arete Research, a Telco 2.0™ partner specialising in investment analysis.

The views in this article are not intended to constitute investment advice from Telco 2.0™ or STL Partners. We are reprinting Arete's Analysis to give our customers some additional insight into how some Investors see the Telecoms Market.

[Members of the Telo 2.0TM Executive Briefing Subscription Service and Future Networks Stream, please see here for the full Briefing report. Non-Members, please see here for how to subscribe or email or call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.]

Wireless Infrastructure

LTE: Late, Tempting, and ElusiveLTE is the new HSPA is the new WCDMA: another wave of new air interfaces, network architectures, and enabled services to add mobile data capacity. From 3G to 3.5G to 4G, vendors are pushing technology into a few "pioneer" operators, hoping to boost sales. Yet, like previous "G's," LTE will see minimal near-term sales, requires $1bn+ of R&D per vendor, and promises uncertain returns. The LTE hype is adding costs for vendors that saw margins fall for two years.

Despite large projects in China and India, we see wireless infrastructure sales down 5% in '09, after 10% growth in '08. As major 2G rollouts near an end, emerging markets 3G pricing should take to new lows. Some 75% of sales are with four vendors (Ericsson, NSN-Nortel, Huawei, and Alcatel-Lucent), but margins have been falling: we do not see consolidation (like the recent NSN-Nortel deal) structurally improving margins. LTE is another chapter in the story of a fundamentally deflationary market, with each successive generation having a shorter lifecycle and yielding lower sales. We expect a period of heightened (and politicised) competition for a few "strategic accounts," and fresh attempts to "buy" share (as in NSN-Nortel, or by ZTE).

Late Is Great. We think LTE will roll out later, and in a more limited form than is even now being proposed (after delays at Verizon and others). There is little business case for aggressive deployment, even at CDMA operators whose roadmaps are reaching dead ends. HSPA+ further confuses the picture.

Temptations Galore. Like WCDMA, every vendor thinks it can take market share in LTE. And like WCDMA, we think share shifts will prove limited, and the ensuing fight for deals will leave few winners.

Elusive Economics. LTE demands $1bn in R&D spend over three to five years; with extensive testing and sharing of technical data among leading operators, there is little scope to cut corners (or costs).  LTE rollouts will not improve poor industry margins, and at 2.6GHz, may force network sharing.

Reaching for the Grapes

Table 1 shows aggregate sales, EBITDA, and capex for the top global and emerging markets operators. It reflects a minefield of M&A, currencies, private equity deals, and changes in reporting structure. Getting more complete data is nearly impossible: GSA says there are 284 GSM/WCMDA operators, and CDG claims another 280 in CDMA. We have long found only limited correlation between aggregate capex numbers and OEM sales (which often lag shipments due to revenue recognition). Despite rising data traffic volumes and emerging markets capex, we think equipment vendor sales will fall 5%+ in US$. We think LTE adds risk by bringing forward R&D spend to lock down key customers, but committing OEMs to roll out immature technology with uncertain commercial demand.

Table 1: Sales and Capex Growth, '05-'09E

  '05 '06 '07 '08 '09E
Top 20 Global Operators          
Sales Growth 13% 16% 15% 10% 5%
EBITDA Growth 13% 15% 14% 10% 8%
Capex Growth 10% 10% 5% 9% -1%
Top 25 Emerging Market Operators          
Sales Growth 35% 38% 29% 20% 11%
EBITDA Growth 33% 46% 30% 18% 8%
Capex Growth 38% 29% 38% 25% -12%
Global Capex Total 16% 18% 13% 14% -5%

Source: Arete Research

LaTE for Operators

LTE was pushed by the GSM community in a global standards war against CDMA and WiMAX. Since LTE involves new core and radio networks, and raises the prospect of managing three networks (GSM, WCMDA/HSPA, and LTE), it is a major roadmap decision for conservative operators. Added to this are questions about spectrum, IPR, devices, and business cases. These many issues render moot near-term speculation about timing of LTE rollouts.

Verizon and DoCoMo aside, few operators profess an appetite for LTE's new radio access products, air interfaces, or early-stage handsets and single-mode datacards. We expect plans for "commercial service" in '10 will be "soft" launches. Reasons for launching early tend to be qualitative: gaining experience with new technology, or a perception of technical superiority. A look at leading operators shows only a few have clear LTE commitments.

  • Verizon already pushed back its Phase I (fixed access in 20-30 markets) to 2H10, with "rapid deployment" in '11-'12 at 700MHz, 850MHz, and 1.9GHz bands, and national coverage by '15, easily met by rolling out at 700Mhz. Arguably, Verizon is driven more by concerns over the end of the CDMA roadmap, and management said it would "start out slow and see what we need to do."
  • TeliaSonera targets a 2010 data-only launch in two cities (Stockholm and Oslo), a high-profile test between Huawei and Ericsson.
  • Vodafone's MetroZone concept uses low-cost femto- or micro-cells for urban areas; it has no firm commitment on launching LTE.
  • 3 is focussing on HSPA+, with HSPA datacards in the UK offering 15GB traffic for £15, on one-month rolling contracts.
  • TelefónicaO2 is awaiting spectrum auctions in key markets (Germany, UK) before deciding on LTE; it is sceptical about getting datacards for lower frequencies.
  •  Orange says it is investing in backhaul while it "considers LTE network architectures."
  • T-Mobile is the most aggressive, aiming for an '11 LTE rollout to make up for its late start in 3G, and seeks to build an eco-system around VoLGA (Voice over LTE via Generic Access).
  • China Mobile is backing a China-specific version (TD-LTE), which limits the role for Western vendors until any harmonising of standards.
  • DoCoMo plans to launch LTE "sometime" in '10, but was burnt before in launching WCDMA early. LTE business plans submitted to the Japanese regulator expect $11bn of spend in five years, some at unique frequency bands (e.g., 1.5GHz and 1.7GHz).

LTE's "commercial availability" marks the start of addressing the issue of handling voice, either via fallback to circuit switched networks, or with VoIP over wireless. The lack of LTE voice means operators have to support three networks, or shut down GSM (better coverage than WCDMA) or WCDMA (better data rates than GSM).  This is a major roadblock to mass market adoption: Operators are unlikely to roll out LTE based on data-only business models. The other hope is that LTE sparks fresh investment in core networks: radio is just 35-40% of Vodafone's capex and 30% of Orange's. The rest goes to core, transmission, IT, and other platforms. Yet large OEMs may not benefit from backhaul spend, with cheap wireline bandwidth and acceptance for point-to-multipoint microwave.

HSPA+ is a viable medium-term alternative to LTE, offering similar technical performance and spectral efficiency. (LTE needs, 20MHz vs. 10Mhz for HSPA+.)  There have been four "commercial" HSPA+ launches at 21Mbps peak downlink speeds, and 20+ others are pending. Canadian CDMA operators Telus and Bell (like the Koreans) adopted HSPA only recently. HSPA+ is favoured by existing vendors: it lacks enough new hardware to be an entry point for the industry's second-tier (Motorola, NEC, and to a lesser extent Alcatel-Lucent), but HSPA+ will also require new devices. There are also further proposed extensions of GSM, quadrupling capacity (VAMOS, introducing MIMO antennas, and MUROS for multiplexing re-use); these too need new handsets.

Vendors say successive 3G and 4G variants require "just a software upgrade."  This is largely a myth.  With both HSPA+ or LTE, the use of 64QAM brings significant throughput degradation with distance, sharply reducing the cell area that can get 21Mbps service to 15%. MIMO antennas and/or multi-carrier solutions with additional power amplifiers are needed to correct this. While products shipping from '07 onwards can theoretically be upgraded to 21Mbps downlink, both capacity (i.e., extra carriers) and output power (to 60W+) requirements demand extra hardware (and new handsets). Vendors are only now starting to ship newer multi-mode (GSM, WCDMA, and LTE) platforms (e.g., Ericsson's RBS6000 or Huawei's Uni-BTS). Reducing the number of sites to run 2G, 3G, and 4G will dampen overall equipment sales.

Tempting for Vendors

There are three reasons LTE holds such irresistible charm for vendors. First, OEMs want to shift otherwise largely stagnant market shares. Second, vendor marketing does not allow for "fast followers" on technology roadmaps. Leading vendors readily admit claims of 100-150Mpbs throughput are "theoretical" but cannot resist the tendency to technical one-upmanship. Third, we think there will be fewer LTE networks built than in WCDMA, especially at 2.6GHz, as network-sharing concepts take root and operators are capital-constrained. Can the US afford to build 4+ nationwide LTE networks? This scarcity makes it even more crucial for vendors to win deals.

Every vendor expected to gain share in WCDMA. NSN briefly did, but Huawei is surging ahead, while ALU struggled to digest Nortel's WCDMA unit and Motorola lost ground. Figure 1 shows leading radio vendors' market share. In '07, Ericsson and Huawei gained share.  In '08, we again saw Huawei gain, as did ALU (+1ppt), whereas Ericsson was stable and Motorola and NSN lost ground.

Figure 1: Wireless Infrastructure Market Share, '07E-'09E

Figure 1: Wireless Infrastructure Market Share. Source: Arete Research

Source: Arete Research; others incl. ZTE, Fujitsu, LG, Samsung, and direct sub-systems vendor sales (Powerwave, CommScope, Kathrein, etc.);
excludes data and transmission sales from Cisco, Juniper, Harris, Tellabs, and others.

While the industry evolved into an oligopoly structure where four vendors control 75% of sales, this has not eased pricing pressure or boosted margins. Ericsson remains the industry no. 1, but its margins are half '07 levels; meanwhile, NSN is losing money and seeking further scale buying Nortel's CDMA and LTE assets. Huawei's long-standing aggressiveness is being matched by ZTE (now with 1,000 staff in EU), and both hired senior former EU execs from vendors such as Nortel and Motorola. Alcatel-Lucent and Motorola are battling to sustain critical mass, with a mix of technologies for each, within ~$5bn revenue business units.

We had forecast Nortel's 5% share would dwindle to 3% in '09 (despite part purchase by NSN) and Motorola seems unlikely to get LTE wins it badly needs, after abandoning direct 3G sales. ALU won a slice of Verizon's LTE rollout (though it may be struggling with its EPC core product), and hopes for a role in China Mobile's TD-LTE rollouts, but lacks WCDMA accounts to migrate. Huawei's market share gains came from radio access more than core networks, but we hear it recently won Telefónica for LTE. NSN was late on its HSPA roadmap (to 7.2Mpbs and 14.4Mbps), and lacks traction in packet core. It won new customers in Canada and seeks a role in AT&T's LTE rollout, but is likely to lose share in '09. Buying Nortel is a final (further) bid for scale, but invites risks around retaining customers and integrating LTE product lines. Finally, Ericsson's no. 1 market share looks stable, but it has been forced to respond to fresh lows in pricing from its Asian rivals, now equally adept at producing leading-edge technology, even if their delivery capability is still lagging.

Elusive Economics

The same issues that plagued WCDMA also make LTE elusive: coverage, network performance, terminals, and volume production of standard equipment. Operators have given vendors a list of issues to resolve in networks (esp. around EPC) and terminals. Verizon has its own technical specs relating to transmit output power and receive sensitivity, and requires tri-band support. We think commercialising LTE will require vendors to commit $1bn+ in R&D over three to five years, based on teams of 2-3,000 engineers. LTE comes at a time when every major OEM is seeking €1bn cost savings via restructuring, but must match plunging price levels.

To read the rest of the article, including:

  • Coping with Traffic
  • Is There a Role for WiMax?
  • Will Anyone Get the Grapes?

...Members of the Telco 2.0™ Executive Briefing Service and Future Networks Stream can read on here. Non-Members please see here to subscribe.

AreteThis is a Guest Briefing from Arete Research, a Telco 2.0™ partner specialising in investment analysis.

The views in this article are not intended to constitute investment advice from Telco 2.0™ or STL Partners. We are reprinting Arete's Analysis to give our customers some additional insight into how some Investors see the Telecoms Market.