Verizon Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone turned away from the wireless industry's sometimes hyperbolic optimism about new technologies during an investor conference yesterday, when he offered a measured appraisal of the benefits of small cells, Wi-Fi offload and voice-over-LTE, or VoLTE.
Small cells have been touted as the silver bullet to solving the capacity crunch, a claim often put forth by vendors selling picocells, femtocells and other pint-sized cell sites.
Melone's opinion of small cells was only cautiously optimistic. He said that while small cells can "buy yourself lots of time," deployment is only feasible on a limited scale.
"When you start spanning significant parts of your network where you're in those pressure points, small cells are not as efficient as additional spectrum," he said Wednesday at the Nomura U.S. Media & Telecom Summit. "Certainly small cells and cell splitting has a place, but also spectrum is important as well."
Melone's stance on Wi-Fi offload, another oft-cited fix for network congestion, was similarly tempered.
While it can be effective in "controlled RF" environments like the home and large venues like football stadiums, "when it comes to more of the macro environment, the mobile environment, we just think that (Wi-Fi's) unlicensed spectrum, the lack of propagation, security issues, ping-ponging back and forth... we don't believe that we can offer our customers a good experience utilizing Wi-Fi in those scenarios."
Verizon is "not rushing" into VoLTE, either, Melone said. The operator will enable the technology on its network this year so it can begin testing, but "there's no reason to force customers to move to it."
That stance is markedly different from MetroPCS, which is pushing forward with VoLTE so it can migrate customers off its legacy network and refarm the spectrum for LTE. Verizon, by comparison, doesn't plan to introduce the technology until next year, with VoLTE as the only voice solution on some devices in 2014.
"There's nothing really forcing us to make the move faster than the technology allows," Melone said.
He also threw cold water on using LTE as a wireline replacement. "I don't see LTE as being the solution that a customer would pick for significant broadband use," he said. "I think wireless is a tool where alternatives are limited."
Verizon's LTE-based fixed wireless broadband "cantenna" is such a tool - it's aimed not at customers who could get a high-speed wireline connection, but at customers whose only other options are dial-up.
Melone's comments brought the sometimes high-flying promises of new technologies down to earth. While small cells and Wi-Fi offload can help alleviate capacity constraints, they are not the end-all, be-all solution. Similarly, VoLTE holds tremendous promise, but "there are some challenges to VoIP in a mobile environment that we need to tackle carefully."