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Network Evolution: Advances in LTE technology promise a better customer experience

September 02, 2014

The uptake of long term evolution (LTE) technology has been gaining ground steadily, with 2014 witnessing heightened activity in this segment. According to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), as of July 2014, a total of 318 operators had launched LTE networks across 111 countries. Of these, 51 networks have been launched in 2014 and the total number is expected to touch 350 by the end of the year.

LTE is an orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA)-based wireless broadband technology, designed to provide service continuity with existing universal mobile telecommunication system (UMTS) networks. This allows telecom operators to capitalise on their existing UMTS-related investments. It incorporates the most advanced OFDMA, antenna techniques such as multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) and beamforming. This technology offers high spectral efficiency, low latency and high peak data rates and leverages multimode devices that are compatible with existing 3G technologies.

The move towards LTE deployment is being driven by the ever-increasing demand for high speed data services, fuelled by the proliferation of smart mobile devices. Deployed for the first time in 2009 by TeliaSonera in Sweden, LTE is the world’s fastest growing mobile technology today. Operators across the world are making large investments in this technology as it delivers a lower cost per bit. According to the GSA, 66 operators across 35 countries are investing in voice over LTE (VoLTE) studies, trials or deployments. This includes 10 operators in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the US, who have commercially launched high definition (HD) voice services using VoLTE.

LTE offers significant cost advantages for a number of reasons. The most significant of these is the fact that LTE does not require the replacement of existing towers to roll out 4G services. It leverages the existing 3G technologies and enhances them further with an additional antenna technique such as a higher order MIMO. In addition to this, there has been a significant reduction in the number of components required for an LTE macro base station, thereby reducing the cost for new entrants and cutting down the price for system-on-chip solutions for small base stations. This has resulted in a significant cost reduction for LTE coverage in dense, indoor, and rural environments. For users, LTE provides better speeds, enabling faster sharing of large files, faster media streaming and improved performance for applications such as videoconferencing.

Key trends

Despite the above advantages, LTE uptake was initially slow. The key reasons for this were the poor availability of compatible devices and limited coverage. Service providers across the world use various frequency bands to offer 4G services. For instance, companies in the US use spectrum in the 70 MHz and 1800 MHz bands, while those in Europe utilise 2.6 GHz to provide 4G services. Operators in India use 2.3 GHz while those in Japan use 2.1 GHz. This required manufacturers to develop handsets that could adapt to a range of frequency bands. This, in particular, was a roadblock when LTE was deployed for the first time in the Scandinavian countries in 2009. But things have moved forward since then. According to the GSA, there are 1,889 LTE-enabled devices being provided by 168 manufacturers worldwide, with smartphones making up the largest component, holding a 44 per cent share in this segment. With a rapidly expanding ecosystem that supports LTE, the technology is gaining traction.

According to the GSA, 45 per cent of LTE networks or 144 telecom operators in 70 countries have launched LTE networks using 1800 MHz, as of July 2014. Over 769 devices or 40 per cent of the total can operate in the 1800 MHz band. About 25 per cent of networks currently use 2.6 GHz spectrum. The GSA states that 55 commercial networks across 33 countries are on the 800 MHz spectrum band, for which 467 4G-enabled products were available as of July 2014.

However, a key barrier in wider uptake of LTE is that network coverage has remained limited in most countries, as has the performance of 4G in terms of speed. Most 4G networks do not offer the true speed as stipulated by the International Telecommunication Union. The average speed in Australia is 24.5 Mbps, while that in Japan is 11.8 Mbps. The fastest network is that of Claro Brazil, which offers a speed of 27.8 Mbps. The US has been performing rather poorly, with an average 4G speed of 6.5 Mbps, despite continual infrastructure improvement.

The industry has taken a step beyond LTE and is now experimenting with LTE-Advanced (LTE-A), which is claimed to be the best solution for providing true 4G and even 5G speeds. LTE-A is an upgrade of the existing LTE technology in the sense that it facilitates carrier aggregation (CA). Operators around the world are showing interest in CA because it allows the aggregation of multiple LTE carriers with different bandwidths into a single LTE-A carrier with enhanced bandwidth. The industry is seeking innovative solutions for increasing the capacity of existing networks by 1,000 times in order to meet the meteoric rise in data demand. LTE-A ensures high bit rates by deploying a higher-order MIMO as compared to LTE.

South Korea has been at the forefront of this latest development. It was the first country to launch this network commercially in 2013. Today, a number of operators outside South Korea are testing this technology. The names on this list include major players like US-based AT&T, Australia-based Telstra, Japan-based NTT DOCOMO, and Telenor of Sweden. Operators are especially leveraging CA as a quick way to improve peak speeds. CA using the time division duplex and frequency division duplex modes together is useful for improving coverage and capacity at the same time. This enables telecom operators with LTE-A to offer an improved customer experience, which bodes well for the company in terms of marketing. A related development has been the launch of LTE-A-compatible devices by manufacturers such as Samsung and LG.

Apart from faster speed, LTE-A includes new transmission protocols and multiple-antenna schemes that enable smoother handoffs between cells, increase throughput at cell edges and carry more bits per second into the spectrum. The result will be increased network capacity, more consistent connections and cheaper data. This is the space that the industry is trending towards. According to ABI Research, global LTE-A connections are expected to reach 500 million by 2018.

Another emerging trend is related to VoLTE. The concept of delivering VoLTE is attracting the attention of mobile operators and is expected to become the standard in the near future. According to market research firm Infonetics, over eight operators had launched commercial VoLTE services by June 2014. While South Korea was the first country to have witnessed the commercial launch of these services (in 2012), other countries have been slow to follow. AT&T, NTT DOCOMO and Hong Kong Telecom are the latest to have joined the bandwagon in 2014. However, they all used the same phone, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, which suggests that handset support for VoLTE is still limited.

Outlook

According to Juniper Research, 4G LTE will represent more than 20 per cent of all active mobile connections by 2019. The number of active connections is expected to cross 1 billion in 2017 and 1.8 billion in 2019.

Further, as operators focus their investments on LTE access, the introduction of advanced services such as VoLTE will become more critical. This will enable high definition voice services such as web real-time communications, where operators and enterprises can embed rich communications services into web applications to enhance customer experience, while providing stronger connectivity over a secure network.

Overall, with the rapid commercialisation of LTE technologies, consumers can expect higher broadband speeds and a better quality experience.

 
 

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