LTE map to be very different from 3G's

Caroline Gabriel/Wireless Watch
19 Dec 2011

This is part one of a three-part series into the evolving LTE landscape

We have not waited as long for the “year of LTE” as we did for the “year of 3G,” with real progress seen during 2011.

While most carriers have only deployed the 4G system for trials or limited capital city metrozones so far, and the majority remain primarily focused on 3G+, there are several operators which are racing towards broad coverage and experimenting with new services. Verizon Wireless is the flagship, but we are seeing innovative cloud-based services arriving on the shiny new networks of SK Telecom and the Japanese cellcos. There has also been remarkable progress, mainly in the US, in get-ting advanced LTE devices to market.

However, big challenges remain before LTE will become a viable option for the bulk of the world's cellcos. Chief among these will be spectrum policy and fragmentation – which bands carriers can access in various territories; whether they will secure enough bandwidth to deliver the kind of services which will differentiate them in 4G; the problems of building device ecosystems and roaming alliances around many frequencies; and the split between TDD and FDD modes. There are also the issues of supporting voice, especially before most operators have full IMS installed.

A new geographical pattern for wireless

The issues around spectrum availability – the timing of auctions and the regulatory attitudes to refarming 2G or 3G bands - are the key decider in how quickly a country will see widespread LTE services. In a survey of about 200 mobile operators round the world, Rethink Technology Research found that well over half of them – about 58% - would be able to justify 4G build-out in terms of demand for data (in emerging economies, often as a fixed access system). So – in contrast to early 3G – there is a requirement for LTE in most economies, and the main brakes will come from the regulators, the device makers and the operators' own profit models. These will decide the pattern of roll-out in the period to 2015, to a greater extent than varying levels of consumer demand.

The different spectrum approaches will create a very different geographical pattern to the one seen in 3G, whose early years were dominated by the advanced economies. The early adopters have tended to be CDMA carriers, which lack the HSPA community's extensive roadmap to upgrade 3G technologies before taking the plunge into 4G. While many HSPA operators will keep that platform, and its successive updates, at the heart of their data strategies at least until mid-decade – toying with LTE for specific metrozones or, conversely, rural access – CDMA cellcos are under far greater pressure to move quickly to a more universal system.

This has weighted early roll-out to areas where CDMA is strong, notably the US but also parts of Asia, while Europe – the home of the 3G spectrum bubble of the end of the twentieth century – is more focused on HSPA+.

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