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LTE: Up in the air

01 Jul 2011
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There’s no shortage of hype being pumped out as mobile network operators around the world fall over each other to market Long Term Evolution (LTE) – the emerging 4G technology platform – to their speed and data hungry customers.US carrier Verizon, however, wins the prize for getting itself most worked up about LTE. It’s a technology that will "change the way you see wireless,” the company’s website declares."Download movies in minutes. Photos in seconds ... Verizon 4G LTE provides wireless options for a previously wired world,” the site boasts."Eventually every wireless carrier will have 4G.”Closer to home, Australian incumbent Telstra was a little more restrained when it announced back in February this year plans to upgrade its existing "Next G” 3G network with LTE technology in the central business districts of all Australian capital cities and some regional centres by the end of 2011.The LTE deployment would again mean Australians were at the "leading edge of mobile telecommunications,” Telstra said."The technology can provide many Australians with faster data speeds, high-quality video conferencing and faster response times when using mobile applications or accessing the internet,” Telstra chief executive officer David Thodey said at the time."It can also help Telstra meet demand for mobile data, which is doubling every year as customers move to adopt data-hungry smartphones, mobile modems and tablets.”Increasing demandsMobile users are indeed demanding massive increases in mobile data. According to a report published by Cisco in the same month Thodey made his comments, global mobile data consumption increased 2.6-fold in 2010 and is set to increase a staggering further 26-fold by 2015.LTE is being pitched as offering the equivalent of the fixed broadband speeds the majority of home users are used to today, but without the restrictions of wires and cables.Whilst LTE can theoretically deliver something in the order of 100Mbps down and 50Mbps up, Verizon, which is in the process of rolling out LTE to 74 US metropolitan areas, says its customers are currently receiving download speeds of between 5Mbps and 12Mbps – speeds up to 10 times faster than it offers over its 3G network.As well as hiking speeds, LTE also has the advantage of offering increased data capacity over the network – a fact that has obvious appeal for both consumers and carriers.The technology war that was raging a few years ago between LTE and WiMax has been well and truly won by LTE. WiMax remains as a useful technology with a significant niche, but for mainstream carrier progression from 3G to 4G networks, LTE appears to be where the industry is heading.The growth in interest in LTE is demonstrated by recent figures from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association which show a 40% hike in the number of LTE-enabled handsets launched up to June compared to March levels.Across the Tasman, Vodafone followed up Telstra’s February announcement with its own news in April that it was replacing hardware with a view to moving towards LTE services, starting before the end of 2011.Ongoing problems with its network services have forced Vodafone Australia to upgrade its technology and the company said its decision to replace its existing 2G and 3G cabinets in its base stations "will enable Vodafone to upgrade to 4G or LTE at the flick of a switch, with the first LTE next generation services expected to come online later this year”.Local uncertaintyIn New Zealand there have not been any specific announcements from Telecom, Vodafone or 2degrees around plans to upgrade their networks to LTE, although all three carriers have talked enthusiastically about eventually making the move.So it remains unclear how New Zealand’s LTE landscape will unfold, and there is a major hurdle to  cleared before the situation is likely to become any more certain, with the carriers laying their cards on the table.That obstacle is the future of the 700 MHz spectrum – the so-called "digital dividend” which will become available for use as a mobile broadband platform once analogue television is turned off in late 2013.According to a Ministry of Economic Development discussion paper released earlier this year, economic studies internationally suggest the highest benefit in using the 700 MHz band (the 112 MHz of spectrum from 694 to 806 MHz) "will come from allocating it in a form suited for mobile broadband. Other countries are generally following this course.”The discussion paper says: "Analysis by Venture Consulting has suggested that allocating the 700 MHz band to mobile broadband would also provide the highest economic benefit to New Zealand, and that the costs of deploying mobile broadband networks in this band could be $1-2 billion lower than deployment in higher frequency bands.”Whilst the Government has yet to make a final decision on the issue, it seems likely that a frequency "band plan” to enable efficient use of the digital dividend will be approved in line with similar band management approaches in other Asia Pacific countries, and that frequency usage rights will be auctioned off sometime over the next couple of years.Decisions also still need to be made by Government as to whether carriers operate 4G networks over their own spectrum within the 700 MHz band, or whether a shared, open access approach is taken.Whilst the 700 MHz band is ideal for LTE, which operates most efficiently on lower frequency spectrum, it is also possible that the telcos may opt to deploy LTE on existing, higher frequency spectrum they already lease.In Australia, for example, Telstra’s deployment of LTE utilises 1800 MHz spectrum previously used for the telco’s 2G network.Debate about New Zealand’s initial plunge into the world of LTE – or rather its failure to do so – flared back in February when the Government awarded a $285 million project to build its Regional Broadband Initiative (RBI) to a joint Telecom and Vodafone bid.Under the RBI contract, Vodafone will deploy a 3G wireless network using 900 MHz spectrum, whilst Telecom is responsible for the wired aspects of the network.Future proofingThe decision to pick Telecom and Vodafone for the contract was slammed by a rival bidder, specialist network company Kordia, which together with Woosh Wireless and FX Networks, had proposed a solution incorporating LTE.Kordia CEO Geoff Hunt said at the time he was "dismayed” the Government had gone for a 3G network ahead of a 4G solution."The government had an opportunity through the RBI to provide a technology step-change in services for rural New Zealand that would have laid a future-proof and highly competitive foundation for the next 15 years,” he said."The 3G element of the Telecom Vodafone solution is being superseded all around the world by 4th generation wireless (4G) technologies like TD-LTE. [Kordia and Woosh’s] proposed technology solution for the RBI was 4G wireless. Australia, India, China and the U.S. are all planning to roll out this technology now, and between them will have over one billion customers.”But Telecom and Vodafone rejected the criticism, saying their RBI solution will deliver a future-proved network."At a wireless level, the service will launch with the best 3G technology using frequencies capable of delivering a high quality service to rural areas,” Telecom’s website says."It is important to note that, while 3G is a step in the upgrade path to LTE, successful deployment of LTE to rural New Zealand will require the use of lower frequency spectrums which provide greater reach. These frequencies are not currently available as they are used by analogue television transmissions. There are plans in place to upgrade to an LTE service once the frequencies become available.”Hunt points out, however, that the strategy assumes Vodafone is successful at bidding for 700 MHz spectrum when it goes to auction sometime before 2014.Meanwhile Kordia hasn’t let the RBI loss completely scupper its enthusiasm for LTE and has been talking about the possibility of becoming the first operator to bring the 4G technology to New Zealand through another channel: its Extend rural wireless broadband network, which it has operated since 2003.Kordia chairman David Clarke said in May the company was giving "measured consideration” to upgrading Extend to LTE using spectrum it owns in the 2.3 GHz band."We are looking at that space quite actively,” he said.But while Kordia and all the other local telco operators scratch their heads working through all the frequency allocation scenarios, the band permutation possibilities, and the cost and return on investment issues – all in a bid to figure out how they can best achieve an LTE deployment, end-users are worried about something completely different.Waiting for iPhoneGlobally, it seems the major issue related to LTE from a consumer perspective is a simple one: when will an LTE version of the iPhone be available?With Verizon and rival US carrier AT&T ramping up their LTE marketing machines, the availability of an Apple handset capable of taking advantage of faster data is top of mind for consumers.The answer is that an LTE iPhone will probably not appear until at least early next year, after Apple solves performance issues which have dogged the early LTE chipsets.It seems the road to fast 4G wireless networks and a revved-up version of the iPhone to use on them, really is a frustratingly long-term evolution.