If you're an avid follower of technology, you can't open up another story these days without seeing some reference of next-generation data networks. Right now it's anything "4G" that has that "new technology smell" that people can't get enough of:

  • Verizon (NYSE: VZ) has made a lot of noise about its roll-out of next-generation LTE networks in 38 cities by the end of the year.
  • Sprint (NYSE: S) actively uses its WiMAX network as a selling point, touting "The Nation's First 4G Network" across its advertising.
  • AT&T (NYSE: T) is also furiously working to get its LTE network off the ground, though it's not expected to launch service until the middle of next year.

And it's not just the big boys of wireless who have caught the excitement. CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) has actively promoted its assistance in building out Verizon's LTE network in Las Vegas. MetroPCS has touted launching the nation's first LTE service despite only having initial service in one city and only one clunky phone from Samsung that can connect to LTE.

The excitement isn't limited just to wireless carriers either. Chipmakers are getting the LTE bug as well. Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM) shelled out $316 million this week to purchase a WiMAX and LTE specialist "to accelerate the market availability" of offering 4G chipsets. Skyworks (Nasdaq: SWKS) scored wins in LTE devices from Samsung and has rolled out several components aimed at placing it at the front of its class in 4G.

However, all of this excitement around 4G technologies obscures a broadening trend: Carriers are still investing heavily in the older 3G technologies that power data networks today. Quietly, the carriers have all been making incremental investments in their 3G technologies to either speed them up or add new capabilities. Consider some of the recent moves carriers have made with their existing 3G networks:

  • T-Mobile has upgraded its 3G network so much that it now promotes it as having 4G speeds.
  • Verizon recently announced it was upgrading its network to allow simultaneous use of data and voice. The inability of Verizon's network to handle voice and data had long been a selling point for AT&T, but with the iPhone likely coming to its network, Verizon is investing in an upgrade to solve the issue once and for all.
  • AT&T continues to roll out "HSPA 7.2" updates across the country. The company hopes the upgrade, which promises to double download speeds, will help solve some of the network bottlenecks AT&T has seen recently.

The important point in all these cases is that carriers are making a significant investment in existing technologies. If they didn't plan on continuing 3G as part of their data networks for a long time, these investments wouldn't make sense. That presents a fantastic opportunity for one company in particular: Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM). While Qualcomm owns a strong portfolio of patents in LTE that will continue bringing in large royalty checks, the company's grip on 3G patents is stronger. The longer 3G remains in the game as a complement to faster 4G technologies, the stronger Qualcomm's ability to continue generating high royalty cash flows.

It's not that LTE isn't the future -- it is -- it's just that hype around the new technology is getting ahead of the ability to roll out the technology and create phones that really effectively use this network. In the middle of all the 4G noise, it might be 3G stalwart Qualcomm that's been benefiting the most from recent events.

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