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Verizon Is Heading Toward a Gigabit, CDMA-Free Future

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Verizon Gigabit LTE

The CDMA era at Verizon is coming to an end. But if you think that means you’ll be able to use your OnePlus or Huawei phone on the nation’s No. 1 carrier, think again.

While Verizon’s LTE network may be technically compatible with unapproved phones, the carrier will continue to refuse to provision devices it hasn’t tested or certified, Lutz Ehrlich, Verizon Wireless director of Network Systems Performance, said during a roundtable at Verizon’s New Jersey headquarters today. That means open-market phones that have not received Verizon’s blessing still won’t work on the network.

Ehrlich said customers tend to blame Verizon if their device fails, rather than going to the manufacturer. That’s a difference between the US and other countries where unlocked phones may be more common.

“If it drops, of course you blame our network,” he said.

So Verizon does a massive amount of network-compatibility testing on all the phones it actually sells. It’s a multi-step process involving labs, drivers, global roaming testing, and “friendly users” out in the real world, and it takes three or four weeks per device. Only then is a Verizon SIM allowed to light up that phone.

The extensive testing also explains why software updates, including Android OS updates, may take longer to appear on Verizon devices than on other carriers.

In 2017 so far, Verizon has seen more than 1,400 testing “submissions,” according to the company. That included 48 new retail devices with 407 different software updates, and 402 “open development” (usually Internet of Things) devices. Those resulted in 200 “network critical” failures that had to be fixed, according to a slide that Ehrlich showed us.

“If it was never tested on our network, it may not work well,” Ehrlich said. “You may make voice calls, but you won’t get the experience you come to expect from Verizon.”

Busting a popular myth, Ehrlich said the verification policy isn’t about Verizon’s old CDMA radio network, at least not any more. The company has already started to move away from CDMA in stages, aiming at a 2020 date to turn off the old network. Verizon is shifting spectrum from CDMA to LTE, which CDMA users don’t notice because the number of CDMA devices has declined, said Mike Haberman, Verizon’s VP of network support.

Verizon already carries a feature phone without CDMA, the LG Exalt LTE, and an Asus smartphone without CDMA, the ZenFone V.

Sure, They Have Gigabit

Verizon execs also rejected T-Mobile’s claims that it’s behind the times on “gigabit LTE.” Gigabit LTE, as promoted by Qualcomm and T-Mobile, is a combination of 3-carrier aggregation, 256 QAM encoding, and 4×4 MIMO antennas that can achieve 979Mbps down in very specific circumstances. AT&T calls it “5G Evolution.”

Ehrlich confirmed that Verizon has these technologies in every one of its markets nationwide. In Verizon’s lab, we saw gigabit LTE running on Moto Z2, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 phones, using two 20MHz Band 4 carriers and one Band 2 carrier.

The technologies aren’t in every corner of every city yet, though. The company also doesn’t like the “gigabit” branding, as real-life users are unlikely to get gigabit speeds.

Verizon is taking a similarly low-key tack with EVS, a set of advanced voice technologies that T-Mobile has been promoting. “We do have the functionality in the network, and certain devices can do it right now. There just isn’t a huge advantage of it going one way or the other,” Haberman said.

Also improving voice, the company now allows higher-quality, voice-over-LTE calls between Verizon and AT&T subscribers with no reduction in quality. That’s something we last heard about in 2016, although news stories then didn’t make it clear when it would be widely available. It’s available now, Haberman said.

“If you’re a Verizon customer with VOLTE and you’re an AT&T customer with VOLTE, it will go directly to them and it will not downconvert. We have similar programs with others we’re working on,” Haberman said. He couldn’t give a target date as to when VOLTE interoperability with Sprint and T-Mobile would kick in.

Why so shy, Verizon? “We want to under-promise and over-deliver,” Ehrlich said.

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