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What's Up With Verizon Wireless' 4G Outages?

Updated on December 31, 2011

For those folks savy enough to understand wireless technology, it's no news to you that Verizon Wireless has deployed one of the largest and earliest 4G wireless networks based on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. They first deployed the technology commercially well over a year ago and started serving users with LTE data modems for access to their high speed 4G network. Today, along with the data modems, Verizon Wireless (VZW) also has commercially available several LTE capable smartphones, most running the Android operating system. They have been playing this up alot via their commercials and strong marketing activities.

Of course, the one thing they don't like seeing in the press is reports of outages. Unforuntately, 2011 has been a year of outages for VZW specifically on their 4G network. In the month of December alone, their were 3 separate outages of their LTE network. Nobody wants to talk about outages, especially VZW who for years has prided themselves on the most reliable cellular network in the US. Remember the "Can You Here Me Now" guy and all those commercials? So how big a deal are these outages and what does it mean specifically for VZW and the wireless industry in general?

What's The Impact of These Outages?

First off, at the time of this writing, VZW has over 190 markets across the US covered with the 4G LTE technology. Those markets cover over 200 million people. Those numbers alone give you an idea of the current reach of their 4G network. Based on that, when an outage occurs, it typically impacts a large amount of people.

So why haven't the natives gotten restless? First off, even though there were at least 6 LTE outages at VZW over this past year that I can recall, the overall performance is still in the range of 99% uptime of that very same network. That's not too bad. Yes, they along with all the other operators have outages all the time on their existing 2G and 3G networks, but we typically don't hear much about them. Most of them are usually isolated to a specific market, as compared to VZW's outages, which on several occassions, were network wide outages. That means their entire 4G network throughout the US was out of commission. These outages usually don't last too long but even an hour can be like an eternity for an operator whose major differentiation in the marketplace is "reliability".

The second thing that has really saved VZW during these outages is that they still have the largest and most reliable 3G network in the US. Their CDMA network for both voice (1X) and data (EVDO RevA) is still humming along nicely and continues to hold up well even throughout the data storm VZW has seen on their networks ever since the first Android Smartphone launched. That performance has remained steady even after the operator launched their first 2 Apple iPhones, both which only supported CDMA and no LTE. So how does that help the 4G customers?

Every LTE device that VZW sells on the market today is a multi-mode device. This means the phones or data devices have built-in the ability to run on either the 4G LTE network, or the reliable 3G CDMA network, depending on where the coverage is and which network has the strongest signal. This dual mode capability is a device requirement VZW gives to all their device suppliers and will probably remain for awhile. The reason the dual modes are required is simply because VZW does not yet have ubiquitous coverage with their LTE technology. They are still in the process of rolling it out throughout their network but it will take awhile before everyone in the US has LTE coverage. Because of that, the phones and devices must continue to support CDMA 1X and EVDO for those people living and traveling in parts of the country that still do not have LTE.

So the good new is that when VZW's LTE network goes down, most users are able to continue working on the 3G network. In most cases, the end user may not even realize it. In the case of a user using a USB LTE modem in their laptop, in that case, the drop down in speeds from LTE to CDMA EVDO may very well be noticeable since the LTE network provides up to 10X faster speeds than the 3G network. That being said, CDMA EVDO still remains a very fast and usable network. So having that fallback capability doesn't prevent VZW's customers from continuing to use the network and be productive.

So What Are These Problems All About?

Before going into the very little information we know about the problems, lets keep in mind that VZW is a leader in deploying wireless networks. As such, they are blazing the trail to LTE, having the largest LTE network in the world. I hesitate to say VZW had the first LTE network in the US because MetroPCS stole some of that thunder when they deployed their first LTE market (Las Vegas) just ahead of VZW's LTE launch. That being said, VZW is truly leading the way into LTE, not just for the US market, but also for mobile operators throughout the world who plan to eventually deploy LTE.

So, from what we know about the public statements VZW made about their outages, they claim that each outage was caused by a unique and different problem, nothing that is to be considered epidemic with the new technology. The other issue they sited is that VZW themselves are going through the typical growing pains with a new technology. So the good news for them and others planning to deploy LTE, is that their is nothing wrong with the technology itself. In one of the earlier LTE outages in 2011, they had mentioned problems with their security gateway, known as the HSS. With that particular outage, users were unable to get authenticated on either the LTE network or the CDMA EVDO network, so the acceptable fallback I mentioned above didn't work. The users did fall all the way back to the CDMA 3G 1X data network, which is extremely slow, so users definitely saw a dramatic difference in download speeds. I guess the good news was that at least there was something to fall back to, as opposed to simply being denied service.

Bottom Line

So the bottom line from my personal opinion is that people should cut VZW some slack in terms of these outages. Granted, I understand people are paying lots of money for monthly service and yes I agree it is VZW's responsibility to provide a high quality and reliable network. Problems exist with every new technology, whether it's wireless or wired? All new technologies suffer growing pains. We went through similar issues when VZW first launched CDMA and now look at that network!!! There aren't many operators in the world at this point that could lose their entire LTE network and still be able to serve its customers with one of the best 3G networks available. Chances are, these aren't the last we'll hear of LTE outages from VZW or any other operators. I won't be surprised to see similar news from AT&T as they recently laucned their first LTE network. Similar for Sprint who plans to launch LTE service in 2012. If I were you, I wouldn't let such news deter you from purchasing an LTE phone. The service will only get better and better and VZW will have the most 4G coverage of anyone for quite sometime now, the advantage they got by being first, I mean second, to market with a new technology!!

If you are a VZW LTE customer, I'd love to hear your thoughts and/or comments on the 2011 LTE outages. For that matter, if your a 4G user on any operator network, let's hear your comments on your experiences.

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