Let's start with the obvious: the demand for mobile broadband is insatiable, and is expected to become only more so. Findings from recent vendor surveys and reports paint a future of heavy mobile data usage growing at rates faster than operators may be expecting.
Ericsson's latest Mobility Report, for example, says mobile data traffic is expected to grow at 50% CAGR between 2012 and 2018 (that's around 12x growth), driven mainly by video. That's conservative compared to Cisco's Visual Networking Index, which is forecasting global mobile data traffic to grow 18x from 2011 to 2016, to 10.8 exabytes per month.
Ironically, LTE - which is supposed to be helping operators cope with the data deluge - is helping to drive that deluge, according to another report from Arieso.
"For three years now we've seen how greater technical capabilities lead to greater data consumption by consumers. From our own experience helping operators around the world prepare their networks for evolving user demands, we hypothesize that LTE alone won't ‘solve' the data problem - it will exacerbate it," says Arieso CTO Michael Flanagan.
And now smartphone users are consistently consuming more mobile data than even tablet users, Flanagan adds.
"Once you move away from raw consumption statistics, the most remarkable finding is the way in which people use smartphones and tablets," continued Flanagan. "Regardless of device type and operating system, there is very little variation in the usage ‘signature' between smartphone users and between tablet users."
Little wonder that operators and vendors alike are already looking for ways to cope with data demand besides simply upgrading to LTE.
Some are already setting their sights on LTE-Advanced, the next version of LTE. LTE-A promises peak data rates as high as 1 Gbps downstream and 500 Mbps upstream by aggregating up to five carriers (each as wide as 20 MHz), with improved multi-antenna techniques and 8x8 MIMO configurations.
Technology Business Research has reported that AT&T Mobility intends to launch LTE-A in the second half of this year. Russian operator Yota claimed to have launched LTE-A last October in Moscow with equipment from Huawei Technologies, but mainly as a test. (Yota also said it's not expecting delivery of actual devices for the network until sometime in the first half of this year.)
Meanwhile, an awful lot of work is also focused on making existing mobile broadband technology work better. Indeed, when it comes to issues of capacity and data speeds, one of the biggest constraints is the fact that spectrum isn't utilized as efficiently as it could be. That's partly the result of the way it's allocated, which is why some regulators are now interested in spectrum sharing schemes (see sidebar, "Learning to share spectrum"). But while the current generation of wireless broadband technology is more efficient than ever before, there's still room for improvement.
And there is some serious innovation going on to make wireless networks run faster and better, from full-duplex MIMO and cognitive radios to deceptively simple ideas like congestion management software and algebra.