Verizon quietly unleashes its LTE monster, tripling 4G capacity in major cities

We’ve already logged a few sightings of Verizon’s powerful new LTE network in New York and other cities, but in the last few months Verizon has been rapidly working behind the scenes on upgrading its LTE infrastructure across the country. Today on the third anniversary of its initial 4G network launch, Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) revealed to Gigaom that it has now set the new network beast loose in dozens of major markets across the country.

In the commercial corridors of major cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C.. Verizon has tripled its LTE capacity by tapping new airwaves, while in downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles it’s boosted capacity by 150 percent. The end result is that in cities where it’s completed the upgrade, customers will not only have access to much faster peak speeds — as high as 80 Mbps —  than its first LTE network could support but Verizon also will be able to support many more connections at faster speeds.

nicola-palmer-4G-LTE-366x251Verizon isn’t publicizing this network launch all that much, though it did make a brief mention of the new upgrades in its 3rd anniversary blog post this morning. But Verizon Wireless Chief Network Officer Nicola Palmer shared all of the details in an interview with me today.

Verizon is tapping the Advanced Wireless Services airwaves it acquired from the cable operators back in 2012, and these are no paltry frequencies. In every major city east of the Mississippi and in several western markets, Palmer said, Verizon has fielded LTE systems utilizing a full 40 MHz of spectrum, twice as big as the 20 MHz network it’s spent the last three years rolling out nationwide. In some cities it couldn’t piece together a 40 MHz block, but it has been able to get close: In San Francisco and Los Angeles, for instance, the new networks are hosted on 30 MHz of AWS spectrum.

Those setups could support theoretical speeds for 100 Mbps to 150 Mbps, though real-world speeds will be much slower, especially as more subscribers move onto the network. More importantly though, the upgrade gives Verizon much needed capacity.


Chasing mobile data demand

As Verizon has loaded its original LTE network with smartphones, its average speeds have started to suffer. Verizon lost it’s speed crown to AT&T(s t) earlier this year, and last month Verizon CFO Fran Shammo admitted that Verizon’s 4G network has begun to suffer from congestion problems in major cities.

Already two-thirds of all Verizon’s mobile data traffic has migrated onto its old LTE network, Palmer said. “This is the data network,” she said. “It’s carrying a lot of data, and it’s carrying it well.” But Palmer expects that data load to grow by a factor of six or seven times in the next few years, meaning Verizon had to find new airwaves on which to put that rapidly increasing number of LTE connections.

These new network upgrades should solve any capacity problems for the next few years. At the very least, they will restore Verizon’s LTE service to its former glory, but most likely customers in bigger cities with AWS-compatible phones will see dramatic speed increases in the near-term. Palmer said Verizon has already completed the upgrade on thousands of cell sites, and by year end it will have 5,000 AWS sites online with an additional 5,000 sites in various stages of completion.

Verizon's LTE coverage in dark red

Verizon’s LTE coverage in dark red

Not every device will connect to the network just yet, though Verizon began seeding the market with new AWS-capable phones back in the second quarter. Devices that can take advantage of this new network today — the iPhone(a aapl) 5s and 5c, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Motorola(s goog) Droid Maxx, Mini and Ultra, and several LTE modems — all have the necessary radios and software. Verizon will also be sending out over-the-air software updates to enable the AWS radios in the Galaxy Note 3 and other Android devices shortly.

About 15 percent of Verizon’s smartphone base can tap the new networks, but by the end of the year that number should be 20 percent, Palmer said. From this point forward nearly every new smartphone Verizon picks up will have AWS capabilities, she added.

Mobile carriers play catch-up

The other carriers are also working on various upgrades. T-Mobile(s tmus) recently doubled its LTE capacity in major cities putting it on par with Verizon and AT&T’s nationwide networks, and it has plans to deploy its own 40 MHz 4G configurations, giving it one of the most networks in the country. Sprint made a big splash with its Spark service launch earlier this month, but the initial launch still uses only 20 MHz of spectrum. Sprint can easily add capacity to Spark in the future, though, from its treasure trove of 2.5 GHz airwaves.

AT&T is a bit of unique situation. It doesn’t have the contiguous airwaves in most markets to launch a 40 MHz monster, but it is scouring its old 2G and 3G networks for spectrum to use for LTE. We’re already seeing new LTE networks in the PCS airwaves in NYC, but AT&T is working in other bands as well. So maybe AT&T won’t be able to field together the speed-demon that Verizon just deployed, but it will add a lot of capacity to its network, which will boost the overall quality for all its users.

Verizon has the upper hand for now — at least in the major cities — but it’s surprisingly not making a big deal out of its new super-charged LTE service . For instance, it has no plans on boosting its advertised network speeds beyond the 5-12 Mbps its been marketing for years. Palmer pointed out that networks are finicky creatures with speeds varying wildly depending on what city you’re located in, how close you are to a tower and how many other connections occupy the same cell.

“You could see 80 Mbps today and 20 Mbps tomorrow and then 10 Mbps the next day,” she said. Verizon wants to keep its networks powerful enough that they can maintain its advertised 5-12 Mbps baseline, she said, but if it manages to dramatically exceed consumer expectations on these new networks, so much the better.

Feature Image courtesy of Flickr user V&A Steamworks