LTE is ready - but is everyone else‾

20 Apr 2009

At last month\'s Mobile World Congress, much of the pre-show hype revolved around two technologies: Android and LTE. While there was a lack of Android-based handset announcements than expected, LTE fared better.

A number of heavy-hitters showcased LTE gear in action during the show, with LTE base stations running live video and other bandwidth-heavy apps. Motorola impressed the most with a van driving around Placa Espanya running LTE between the van and its booth via two eNode Bs running raw 8-Mbps MPEG-4 video with no buffering or FEC of any kind. The handover from one Node B to another produced a bit of picture breakup, but for unbuffered video sharing a link with two laptops running YouTube videos, it wasn\'t bad.

Real-world conditions, of course, won\'t be nearly as accommodating, but new results released in Barcelona from the LTE/SAE Test Initiative (LSTI), which puts an emphasis on real-world conditions in its testing, are encouraging. According to Julius Robson, Nortel\'s chief LTE architect and head of LSTI\'s proof-of-concept group, LTE is essentially living up to the 3GPP\'s performance benchmarks for downlink/uplink throughput performance and latency.

Put another way, LTE works. It hasn\'t been vetted for interoperability yet - that\'s next on the LSTI\'s docket -but it works. And all major LTE infrastructure players will have commercial gear ready by the second half of this year, and already have at least two customers ready to go: TeliaSonera and Verizon, who plan to have initial services up and running by next year - which is good news for LTE fans eager to accelerate its rollout in the face of surging demand for mobile broadband that might otherwise be met by (shudder!) Wimax.

The bad news is that for all the giddiness over LTE\'s progress, it doesn\'t mean LTE is necessarily going to roll out any faster.

Technical performance was arguably the least of LTE\'s worries, especially on the infrastructure side. Plenty of other challenges remain, device availability being a crucial one, although that looks likely to be mitigated by the rise of new devices like netbooks that reduce the need to depend on handsets as the chief access device.

Spectrum acquisition is another major issue, and one that doesn\'t look like it\'s going to be resolved any faster with the most desired spectrum (700 MHz) still locked up in analog/digital TV changeover timetables that won\'t kick in until sometime between 2011 and 2105 for many markets.

Meanwhile, LTE is still just as vulnerable to other wireless broadband technology options - not just Wimax, but also HSPA+, which takes HSPA up to 21 Mbps. HSPA+ is also seeing a potential boost this year with a handful of HSPA+ launches already on the books (such as Telstra) and more slated for this year. By most accounts HSPA+ will be enough to meet current demand, and how soon cellcos need LTE will depend on how much more growth they see. Leapfrogging could be an option, but looking at the cost differences in deployment, HSPA+ has more appeal to CFOs - especially in these troubled economic times.

Which is another thing. Just how much the global recession will impact mobile network capex this year depends on who you ask and what market you\'re talking about, but there\'s little doubt that the recession is going to impact spending priorities.

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