The journey to 4G

Now that carriers have done the big work of getting 4G wireless networks up and running, it’s time to understand what these deployments and services mean to you.

In a nutshell, you can expect wireless services that support data transmission speeds as high as 100Mbps, with QoS and traffic prioritisation to boot. With such features, it becomes possible to imagine a mobile employee using a cell phone to participate in a video conference or tune into high-quality streaming video.

Though several technologies have played a role in 4G as it developed, including WiMax, now LTE is widely accepted as the technology of choice for 4G. “When it comes to the technology of choice for 4G, the whole industry can remember discussions whether LTE or WIMAX would be best suited for connecting people in the future. This contest has been clearly decided in favour of LTE,” says  Andreas Krenn, Head of Strategy and Market Development, Mobile Broadband, Region Middle East and North East Africa.

We are seeing a definite convergence of media and telecommunications which started in the last few years, and this was driven largely by a strong demand for devices like smartphones, tablet computers and laptops. All indications point to further growth in demand and our belief is that we will have as many as 50 billion connections by 2020. We believe that in the future everything that will benefit from being connected, will be connected. This definitely presents an opportunity for 4G in 2012 and beyond and as the global leaders in the field we will look at ways to make the most of this demand, he adds.

Ever since its inception three years back, LTE has ramped up real fast, including the Middle East. “LTE is advancing faster than expected, especially in our region. KSA and UAE are now leading the pack ahead of even many European countries in LTE roll out and the technology itself has matured through standardisation. What is evident now is the clear decision for operators to invest in LTE as the technology of choice 4G mobile network as compared to WiMax, which is either dying out or confined to fixed coverage,” says Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Azzam, Country Senior Officer of Saudi Arabia, Alcatel-Lucent.

Dirk Busse, Mobile Broadband Solutions Architect and LTE Head of Middle East and Africa at Nokia Siemens Networks, echoes a similar opinion: “ LTE is clearly the technology of choice for 4G demonstrated by the fast adoption of the industry – within two years the take-up of networks has outpaced any previous wireless technology before. According to the GSA, 49 LTE networks have already been launched with several hundreds of devices completing the ecosystem so that operators can provide a full and versatile solution to their subscribers. All in all, the economies of scale for both network and end-user equipment makes LTE the most attractive technology solution.

“LTE has surely come of age as a wireless (data) broadband solution. A majority of the networks have been optimized to provide high throughput and good quality service. Though coverage is still growing for LTE, the existing 3G/HSPA+ base of most operators complements the end-user experience beyond the LTE hotspot areas. With increasing data uptake again fueled by many new LTE-enabled devices coming to market this year coverage will continue to grow.”

Spectrum conundrum

The success of LTE depends on spectrum availability with enough bandwidth and vendors say spectrum re-farming is the key to enabling cost-effective LTE networks.  “Spectral resources are not inexhaustible—a fact that is becoming increasingly obvious as demand for them keeps growing. For LTE networks in particular, effective re-farming solutions are crucial in reallocating frequencies while controlling interferences between neighbouring GSM, UMTS and LTE frequencies. Actual coordination between GSM/UMTS and LTE networks is another challenge that can be addressed through spectral re-farming,” says Leo Xu, VP of Solutions & Marketing,  Huwei.

Hilal Halaoui, Partner with Booz & Company, says it also depends on the operator’s specific situation. “Local market, current technology and local spectrum landscapes are essential parameters to be considered. For a cost effective network deployment, operators may want to use two spectrums for LTE: High spectrum in dense urban areas for its efficiency and low spectrum in rural areas where coverage is more critical than capacity. Considering the scarcity of low spectrums in many countries, re-farming in the lower bands might be the only option. However, this is not an easy choice and it has to be done carefully taking into account many factors, such as cost and risks of migrating existing technologies to other spectrums, reduced capacity of other technologies, etc.,” he says.

For operators, it is also equally important to evolve a backhaul strategy for LTE networks, as it can be a potential bottleneck.  “Spectrum is not necessarily the backbone of this mobile broadband revolution. While it will provide a needed boost to the radio access network, trouble will still arise as soon as the traffic hits the backhaul portion of the network.  The rise in bandwidth requirements means that carriers need to rethink their network strategy and favour a flexible approach capable of meeting increases in customer demand,” says Saad Khan, Regional Marketing Director of Ciena.

While LTE is all set to make rapid strides in 2012, industry analysts say HSPA+ will continue to evolve in parallel. “Many operators have deployed 3G networks already, and will continue to upgrade their networks with technologies like HSPA+ or IMS, in order to maximise their investments in spectrum licenses and network equipment, says  Christelle Toureille, Marketing Director for telecommunication solutions at Gemalto Middle East.

She adds that HSPA+ and LTE share many benefits, in particular a common core network, and many services can be deployed on top of HSPA+. Mobile operators will probably use HSPA in conjunction with LTE, and later migrate to a full LTE coverage to take complete benefits from 4G, and avoid congestion.

While HSPA+ is touted as an alternative to LTE for mobile broadband, LTE Advanced is also looming large on the horizon of wireless technologies and we are likely to see initial deployed by next year.  Network manufacturers such as Nokia Siemens Networks are already delivering and deploying network equipment to their customers capable of LTE-A functionality. With a software upgrade only, these operators will be able to launch LTE-A in a short timeframe to offer cutting edge technology to their subscribers and remain the leaders in their markets.

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