The top 10 fast facts you should know about LTE today

Top10LTE

1. LTE is the fastest deployment technology ever:

According to a report released by the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) a few days ago, “LTE is the fastest developing mobile system technology ever” (here). It took LTE less than 4 years to reach the same number of deployments 3G took more than 6 years.

Consider NTT Docomo launched the first 3G commercial network on May 2001, and for December 2007 a total of 190 3G networks in 40 countries were operating. Now consider Telia Sonera launched the first LTE commercial network on December 2009, and for July 2013 a total of 194 LTE networks were operating around the world, according to the GSA.

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2. LTE-Advanced is real and keep coming:

Ericsson announced this week the first carrier aggregation technology deployment of a commercial network for LTE-Advanced using the 1800MHz and 900MHz spectrum bands (here). In this way Telstra, the Australia’s operator, joins South Korea and Russia as the first deployments of LTE-Advanced in the world.

According to the Executive Director of Networks of Telstra, Mike Wright, “Telstra’s LTE subscriber numbers are growing dramatically, with nearly 3 million subscribers currently using the LTE network, up from 2.1 million six months ago. The capacity, higher data speeds and efficiencies provided by LTE-Advanced will help manage growth in data traffic as more customers choose our network…”

3. Total LTE subscriptions worldwide is expected to be 1.36 billion by the end of 2018:

According to a recent report from the GSA, the total number of LTE subscriptions around the world is expected to reach around 1.36 billion by the end of 2018. The rate of growth, particularly increasing this year, is the result of the number of deployments done by operators during 2013 including Verizon Wireless, SK Telecom, NTT Docomo, Everything Everywhere, and Vodafone Germany. All these operators speeded up the LTE deployments, devices penetration, and services this year.

4. The LTE 1800 is the key band for roaming:

Over 43% of the commercially launched LTE networks are using the 1800MHz wireless spectrum band, according to the GSA. A recent report from Informa Telecoms & Media comments “The adoption of the 1800MHz band for LTE has exploded over the last year, as mobile operators are attracted by the band’s unique set of advantages, such as widespread availability, excellent coverage and the possibility of reusing existing network assets. Coupled with strong support from LTE-device manufacturers, these benefits make 1800MHz an ideal band for LTE services, and a strong candidate to provide a globally harmonized roaming solution for LTE.” (here).

If you have a LTE device which can operate in both the band 3 (1800MHz) and band 7 (2.6GHz), you could potentially use it in at least 61 countries today (81% of the LTE commercially available countries). At least 363 LTE devices have announced its capability for operating in bands 3 and 7.

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5. Today almost 1K LTE devices are 3GPP Category 3, and 40 are Category 4… and increasing:

Information from the GSA indicates that 948 LTE user devices today are confirmed to comply with the Category 3 definition of the 3GPP. As LTE Category 4 implies higher peak downlink rates up to 150Mbps, and peak uplink rates up to 50Mbps, there are already 40 LTE user devices confirmed to support the Category 4 definition. These devices include dongles, routers, hotspots, smartphones, and other modules, and the numbers in Category 4 will continue increasing in the future.

6. Almost 60 LTE TDD networks are commercially deployed or being planed:

The Long-Term Evolution Time-Division Duplex (LTE TDD) offers an asymmetric spectrum flexibility advantageous for the operators, especially when considering the wireless spectrum capacities limitations and its increasing growth for the future. According to the GSA today 18 commercial LTE TDD networks exists around the world (details can be seen in the LTE table in my previous post “The European race for Wireless Spectrum”), and 9 networks are combining LTE FDD and TDD for cost reductions and increased capacity. Additionally 41 LTE TDD networks and currently in deployment or planned. Many operators are also running trials and studies for it, as this technology becomes more popular.

7. Small cells will become a critical technology in the future:

As it was already commented in my previous post “The European race for Wireless Spectrum”, the small cells (e.g. Wi-Fi) will become a critical allied for the macro networks when serving the increasing usage demand. The networks of the future (short and mid-term future) will most likely be a combination of LTE networks and small cells, offloading traffic when required for ensuring an optimal quality of the experience (QoE).

8. Huawei and Ericsson are dominating the LTE infrastructure market:

A report released by Informa Telecoms & Media this week, based on data provided and validated by different vendors, estimates Huawei has been awarded 40% of the LTE infrastructure contracts in the world and Ericsson another 34%. The runner-ups have been NSN with 17%, and others like ALU, ZTE, Samsung and NEC for a total of 9% of the allocated contracts. The reports states the reasons for the contracts being awarded to Huawei and Ericsson are mainly due to their technology, pricing, support, and managed-service capabilities.

9. More smartphones, more video, and a lot more mobile traffic usage:

Different reports from the GSA and the Ericsson Mobility Report for this year comment on the growing trend of the mobile data usage. Around 50% of the phones sold in the first quarter of 2013 were smartphones, considering during the full 2012 this percentage was 40%. The mobile data traffic usage doubled from the first quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of 2013, and being mainly driven by video it is expected to grow 12 more times for 2018, having LTE as the main technology for accessing these services. The online video is the main contributor to the mobile traffic usage, and the GSA estimates around 100 hours of video are uploaded per minute today, being YouTube the most used service.

10. Transition to 5G will take place from around 2020:

A whitepaper published by Ericsson and supported by the GSA analyses the status of the 5G research, its standardization process, and the technical challenges it will have to face before being ready for the market (here). From this report we can highlight “…a much wider variety of devices, services and challenges than those accommodated by today’s mobile-broadband systems will have to be addressed (for 5G). Due to this diversity, the 5G system will not be a single technology but rather a combination of integrated RATs, including evolved versions of LTE and HSPA, as well as specialized RATs for specific use cases, which will jointly fulfil the requirements of the future. The research required for the development of 5G is now well underway. The recently founded European METiS (Mobile and wireless communications Enablers for the Twenty-twenty information Society) project is aimed at developing the fundamental concepts of the 5G system and aligning industry views.”

A. Rodriguez

The European race for Wireless Spectrum

As the mobile telecommunications market gets more crowded every year, and the technologies for delivering mobile cellular services evolves, the wireless spectrum has become one of the most precious goods for the telecom carriers. The government agencies are making efforts for ensuring a fair competition and split of the wireless spectrum within each country and continents, via the public spectrum auctions and regulation mechanisms.

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When an operator plans a new technology deployment, like the most recent case with the 4G/LTE, the process must start by having the spectrum secured for operating. That is why it is so important to invest in the spectrum auctions on time. In Europe, we have seen cases where an operator takes huge competitive advantages by having wireless spectrum granted earlier than the competition, like the case of EE in the UK (here). UK regulator Ofcom approved the use of part of the 1800MHz band for LTE in August 2012, ahead of the proper auction carried later on February 2013, allowing them to claim being the first 4G operator in the UK and winning an important number of churner subscribers. We have also seen cases where a European operator is left behind in the LTE offer for not being able to use the available spectrum granted, like the case of Telefonica Movistar in Spain (here). Telefonica saw themselves forced to collaborate on a network infrastructure sharing with Yoigo on July 2013 for allowing a late 4G rollout in the near future, while their granted 800MHz band is liberated from the Terrestrial Digital Television (TDT) and they build their own LTE infrastructure.

The issue of the 800MHz wireless spectrum usage is quite important in Europe these days. As we know the available bands for LTE are in the ranges of 800, 1800, and 2600 MHz, but the lower the frequency of the spectrum the easier and cheaper to cover states and reach geographical areas, making the 800MHz band strategically important. In example most of the operators plan or have roll-out the 4G/LTE coverage for big population cities with the higher 1800 and 2600MHz bands, and use the 800MHz bands to ensure the rest of the geographical extensions are fully covered in the countries. That is mainly why the European Commission decided that every country in the European Union should have the 800MHz band liberated by January 2013, as stated by the Commission “Opening up the 800 MHz band is an essential for expanding use of popular wireless broadband services”. However, recent statements from the European Commission has indicated 17 out of the 28 European Union’ states have not been able to meet the January 2013 deadline (here), with some of them asking for postponements or derogations due to exceptional reasons like having the spectrum occupied with previously agreed usages for TV, etc. So far, the only EU countries with the 800MHz band liberated from different uses, and able to offer LTE services on it are Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, UK, Luxemburg, Croatia, and Ireland. A full table of the operators in Europe and the band used for 4G/LTE is shown below.

(List of LTE deployments per operator and country)

Apart from that, the European Commission also highlighted the poor LTE coverage in Europe compared with USA: “Three out of every four people living in the EU can’t access 4G/LTE mobile connections in their hometowns, and virtually no rural area has 4G. In the United States over 90% of people have 4G access” (here). This is said in response to the early victory claims from some operators with advanced 4G roll-outs, which according to the Commission are still far from really cover all of the geographical extensions as expected. It is simply a truth during the last years USA has advanced gigantic steps towards the mobile communications evolution, while Europe is struggling trying to catch up.

Looking ahead of the 4G/LTE spectrum issues, the small cells are ways to benefit from the spectrum shortage in the macro networks. A recent study (here) also from the European Commission reveals, “71% of all EU wireless data traffic in 2012 was delivered to smartphones and tablets using Wi-Fi, possibly rising to 78% by 2016”. The results far from shocking are totally expected, considering the low cost the small cells technologies and particularly the Wi-Fi represents to both the end user and to the operators for delivering this. The recommendations made by the Commission are at least encouraging “The study recommends:

  • to make spectrum from 5150 MHz to 5925 MHz available globally for Wi Fi;
  • to continue making the 2.6 GHz and the 3.5 GHz bands fully available for mobile use and to consult on future licensing options for 3.5 GHz and other potential new licensed mobile frequency bands; and
  • to reduce the administrative burden on the deployment of off-load services and networks in public locations.”

As it is a fact, the future of the telecoms is most likely a combination of macro networks and small cells. Transitioning those with seamless offload functionalities available now, and being evolved every day by the incumbent vendors.