Typically for the technology industry, work is already being done on what happens next. Even though 3G (UMTS) is not fully deployed and LTE (long term evolution) is still very much in its infancy, attention is already moving to an evolution of the LT evolution.
5G work is already underway with a project involving Huawei, Samsung, Telefonica, Fujitsu, Rohde & Schwarz and Aircom at the UK’s University of Surrey, but the next step will be LTE Advanced.
‘It’s always fun to talk about cool technologies but they have to support a business model and benefit the end user,’ says Stuart Bennington, director of global portfolio planning at Tellabs. ‘Lots more bandwidth is an immediately visible benefit but it will take time to become widespread in the market.’
However, LTE Advanced isn’t quite ready yet. ‘The theoretical comparison between LTE Advanced and current LTE is in peak spectrum utilization of 15 bits per second per hertz in current LTE versus 30 b/s/Hz in Advanced LTE,’ says Alvarion’s Mark Altshuller.
‘The theoretical per user peak rate is 300Mbps versus Gbps in LTE Advanced. These theoretical numbers are not relevant as in most of the cases operators don’t have enough spectrum to use these metrics and the real spectral efficiency of mobile networks is low, about 10%-30% compared to the theoretical values,’ says Altshuller.
For Bowker at Aircom, LTE Advanced is more of an accurate representation of the 4G concept than LTE. ‘In some people’s eyes LTE Advanced, which is [standards body] 3GPP release 10, is actually true 4G – LTE doesn’t actually meet the specifications of 4G,’ he says.
‘With LTE Advanced, 3GPP wants it to be backwards compatible with release eight and nine. Carrier aggregation is the primary reason why people would launch LTE Advanced now,’ continues Bowker. ‘Spectrum is scarce and, if not in a contiguous lump, requires more advanced schemes of optimisation. With LTE Advanced you get higher throughput and lower latency.’
It’s very early days, though. ‘Russian operator Yota is the first operator to declare it has launched LTE Advanced. No one else I know has launched,’ adds Bowker. ‘AT&T plans to in the second half of 2013 and is motivated by having spectrum in different bands.’
Nevertheless, most feel LTE Advanced will be both necessary and welcome. ‘LTE Advanced is a major enhancement,’ says Allan Oakman, services and solutions director at Huawei. ‘It will be compatible with and share frequency bands with first release LTE equipment. And it offers a number of benefits including the aggregation of multiple radio channels and development of advanced antenna techniques.
‘To the end user, it will enable increased broadband speeds and improve the capability of networks to support the increasing data demand. It will provide a capability to deliver gigabit speeds to end users providing a step function in customer experience,’ says Oakman.
Beaver at Anite thinks that this means it might arrive sooner than expected. ‘With LTE Advanced, services and applications such as HD streaming, online gaming and video conferencing will become standard offerings,’ he says.
‘The limitations of bandwidth accessible to the end-user will be a thing of past and customers will be able to make use of the availability of this high speed upload and download capability to their benefit. Mobile operators will finally be able to provide a platform for wireless services that will be the equivalent of fibre to your phone.’
The necessity stems from customers’ heightened expectations. ‘LTE and LTE Advanced are environments in which customers will expect to make Facetime calls and if they can’t they’ll be frustrated,’ says Alastair Hanlon, vice president of market strategy at Amdocs. ‘We see a role in controlling access to the web. For example, if you pay a premium you’re going to get the best bandwidth rate. It’s all about tweaking the technology to make it go quicker and quicker but you are going to have to monetise the network investment.’
When LTE Advanced arrives, famine may turn to feast. ‘Today’s scarcity of bandwidth becomes an abundance that offers the industry the opportunity to evaluate its business plans and improve the experience. Services will change,’ says Leslie Ferry, VP marketing
That change won’t come without substantial challenges for network providers. ‘Achieving peak data rates of 3Gbps over a mobile network poses one of the biggest challenges the industry has ever had to face,’ adds Beaver.
‘Higher data rates are achieved through higher bandwidths, by using carrier aggregation and evolved antenna configurations. LTE Advanced is a release 10 specification, so the industry is getting closer to early adopter trials and roll-outs. Industry estimates suggest that upgrade migration
will start during 2013, with the availability of the first production grade handset, and continue to roll out through 2014/15 and beyond,’ says Beaver.
After that, there won’t be much time for industry to catch its breath before the 5G research starts to bear fruit and enter trials.