To upgrade or to migrate: that's the LTE question

Robert Syputa, Maravedis
09 Sep 2009

Many operators have said they "are committed to deploying LTE", but when pressed for details they often say they have no firm plans and that deployments will likely be sometime between 2013 and 2015.

HSPA+/HSPA Advanced has been considered for some time, especially since an HSPA+ network is backward-compatible with HSPA, allowing existing HSPA handsets to continue working. Also, base stations for all leading vendors are software upgradeable, resulting in lower costs and more seamless upgrades than a move to the LTE RAN.

LTE, however, makes all existing handsets unable to work. Users have to be either transitioned over the normal upgrade turnover time period for new multimode phones or provided with new phones in a more rapid swap out. If the operator opts for the swap out, they have to pay users to upgrade or face defections to other operators.

Long-term gains

What makes this more complicated is that HSPA+ provides bandwidth that is close to that of LTE. So, why make a move to LTE (or Wimax) at all? Part of the reason is that these networks will become the long-term evolutionary path to even higher bandwidths.

However, many carriers do not need this for their mobile operations. If the operator also wants to supply bandwidth-intensive applications like enterprise data networking or if demand grows as fast as that for wired internet connections, they may find themselves in a battle with a competitor that does offer LTE or Wimax.

Similarly, LTE and Wimax might be pegged as similar to HSPA+ at 3.5G or perhaps a bit higher, but certainly not 4G. The decision to move to LTE is more complicated than the issue of bandwidth improvement over HSPA+ or of handset transition. Both LTE and Wimax are flat IP networks that incorporate quality of service and can provide very good VoIP service. A major issue for 2G-3G operators is how they maintain current revenue. If customers are transitioned to VoIP they will likely expect it to provide unlimited calling similar to internet broadband-based VoIP service plans.

Several factors weigh into decisions about what network makes sense for new deployments versus upgrades. How the HSPA+ or LTE migration issue is framed makes a difference. From a more technical perspective, it can be said that LTE does not yet have the proven capability to handle comparable voice calls. However, all studies and examples of early deployments show that voice capacity will be higher and better quality than for 2G-3G.

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