What comes next for LTE

Dimitris Mavrakis/Informa Telecoms and Media
25 Mar 2014

Although LTE deployments and technology are starting to mature, only a fraction of operators globally now offer commercial LTE services. According to Informa’s WCIS, only 182 operators have launched LTE, whereas there are 649 GSM and 120 CDMA operators. Nevertheless, discussion about the future of mobile networks is in full swing, with several candidate technologies being discussed.

Although LTE comes after 3G and 2G data networks, it merely offers a glimpse into the world of mobile data. Usage statistics and traffic patterns from LTE networks around the world indicate that user behavior will change when more bandwidth is available. Furthermore, LTE networks in South Korea were 90% used during the most recent New Year celebrations, indicating that now is the time for operators to think ahead. Enterprise verticals, the Internet of Things, M2M and wearable devices are a few environments that will rely on mobile networks for connectivity.

Although LTE-Advanced is arguably the next step in the development of LTE, we consider it an incremental upgrade, despite some radical improvements (CoMP, massive MIMO, hetnets, carrier aggregation, relays). Three technologies – LTE Unlicensed, LTE Direct and 5G – either look in nonestablished technology areas or are a step ahead of current deployment efforts.

LTE Unlicensed

LTE Unlicensed refers to using LTE technology in higher, unlicensed frequencies to take advantage of wide spectral bands and has been driven by Qualcomm and Huawei (independently). The discussion mostly involves the 5-GHz band, where – depending on region – there is up to 500MHz of spectrum available, though other bands higher than 3.5-GHz might provide interest. Qualcomm’s Unlicensed LTE (uLTE) can provide additional capacity in heavy-traffic indoor areas, and coordination with Wi-Fi networks is being planned so that uLTE is minimally detrimental to existing mobile and Wi-Fi networks.

In theory, an indoor network that is part of the broader cellular realm is likely to coordinate more efficiently and provide better quality of connectivity for end-users than operating different air interfaces across different support networks.

However, it remains to be seen whether uLTE can reach the economies of scale that Wi-Fi has attained and thus provide a cost-effective offload technology, especially since it will require new modems and circuitry in handsets. On the other hand, it also remains to be seen whether Carrier WiFi will be accepted as the de facto standard for providing indoor data coverage.

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