So now that Etisalat is rolling out its LTE services, and some other operators in the region trialling the next generation of mobile network technology, should you rush out to invest in 4G data plans and devices for your employees? Here is what you need to know as to what sets LTE or long-term evolution service, which is poised to be the new world standard for mobile data, apart from its predecessors.
LTE is a GSM-based wireless data standard that has been adopted by some leading mobile operators all over the world as their choice for 4G wireless technology. So far, tests of commercially deployed LTE technology have shown it can deliver average download speeds in the 7M to 12Mbps range, although these speeds are likely to decline once more users subscribe to the services. Along with mobile WiMAX, LTE is part of a new breed of wireless technology that aims to give users a wireless Internet experience that matches or exceeds the speed of most wireline broadband connections.
What does LTE really mean for the Middle East, where operators have made heavy investments into 3G networks? Should they wait till they maximise those assets before joining LTE bandwagon? “We’ve already seen investments in technology by operators such as STC that recently announced a deal with Mobiserve to roll out their 4G network. We’ll see leading operators investing in LTE, with roll out concentrated mainly in high traffic areas such as major cities. At present there are still many countries in which network expansion is a priority. We believe countries such as UAE, KSA and Qatar will lead the deployment of these networks,” says Lindsey McDonald, Information & Communication Technologies Consultant with Frost & Sullivan.
IDC believes that the telecom space in the Middle East will not witness launch of LTE networks before 2012. However, once LTE is launched, consumers in search of better mobile broadband, primarily High ARPU Customers (HACs) both from business and youth segment are expected to be the early adopters of LTE based services in the region, according to the research firm.
From an enterprise perspective, who will be the initial adopters of LTE in the region? Globally, in markets where LTE has already been rolled out, the early adopters have been small and midsize businesses located in major markets that don’t have many branch locations in rural areas or cities where coverage has yet to arrive. However, it may not be the case in the Middle East.
“LTE promises to provide higher bandwidth, improve latency levels and speed which effectively means better transmission of real time information. It might be attractive for consumers but it would be interesting to note that most enterprise applications are designed for existing connectivity and do not require high bandwidth. Hence, it is highly unlikely that the enterprise segment – both large enterprises and SMBs (Small Medium Businesses) will take the lead in boarding the LTE bandwagon,” says Hasan Sandila, Telecommunication Analyst with IDC.
Currently, there are very few companies who provide mobile broadband to their employees and even fewer who would want to upgrade their employees to better connectivity on limited part of territory, he adds.
Noel Kirkaldy, Director of Solutions Marketing in Motorola, says LTE won’t come close to fulfilling its potential until more wireless spectrum is freed up for use by the regulators over the next five years. “Spectrum availability is key as LTE can operate on a host of spectrum. You can use 2.6 Mhz for HSPA offload, and 800 Mhz for wider coverage and to make internet available for all. We have to offer operators a basket of choice to pick from in terms of spectrum and most chipsets today have handle multiple bands.”
Sandila from IDC agrees that one of the foremost challenges is the availability of desired spectrum. “Vendors believe that the primary reason for delay in trials of LTE in the Middle East is the spectrum allocation. LTE can operate at a spectrum which can range from a frequency of 700 MHz to 4GHz. Currently the frequencies used for the LTE trials in the Middle East are 2.5 GHz in Oman, 800 MHz and 3.6 GHz in Kuwait and 2.6GHz for the rest of the Middle East. It is difficult to identify optimum spectrum for wireless technologies because the lower the frequency the better is the indoor coverage. However, it is easier to obtain more bandwidth in higher frequencies.”
He adds that for LTE in Time Division Duplex (TDD) mode, operators need at least 20 to 30 MHz of spectrum to deliver throughput to each user. A spectrum of 2 x 20 MHz should suffice for the Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) LTE. Ideally FDD LTE operators would try to obtain 2 x30 MHz which would enable them to provide good indoor coverage and better throughput.
Another burning question is whether LTE will go the way of 3G, which was plagues by many ills when it came out ten years back. Kirklady says robustness and QoS have been top priority in the development of LTE. “When UMTS came out, it didn’t have quality of service and operators were forced to sell it as dump pipe. But towards the end of HSPA evolution, the industry started adding QoS. WiMax was built with tiers of QoS while LTE has 20, which will help you differentiate on speed, and latency.”
Will the mobile industry finally bite the bullet and move from dump pipe to smart pipe? It might still be a number of years away.