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While LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks contibue to be rolled out worldwide, research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics says 2012 will be a “breakout year” for  4G technology. The global LTE phone shipments will grow tenfold this year, reaching 67 million units. up from 6.8 million units in 2011. The companies that are fuelling this growth include Apple, HTC, Nokia and Samsung.

 

When the first mobile phone networks arrived in the 1990's, the major hurdle this technology faced was maintaining a connection to the network while moving. Cell handover and subscriber location paging was in its infancy. The ability to make and receive a call without wires was a novelty in itself.

 

It would not be accurate to describe advances in mobile technology as revolutionary, such as the explosive growth of the Internet, associated applications, social media and technology behind it. It would probably be more accurate to describe these advances in mobile technology as evolutionary, since each advancement can be described as a logical next step in a yet undefined technological end game.

As a result, LTE is the latest descendant of the mobile infrastructure, which just like the Internet, promises to provide access to the same content we take for granted in our homes and offices, but without wires.

Why LTE?

Nearly every mobile operator today operates two different networks. The voice network also called the CS Domain or circuit switched network, provides call services, and basic data connections (~9.6kbps). For a mobile operator, this is an expensive network to operate and maintain. Most of the technology associated with this type of network was carried over from the first digital telephony systems from the 1980's.

 

Despite improvements such as the ability to carry traffic on IP enabled links, it is still bound by the point-to- point rules and strict interconnection procedures of the underlying technology. The evolution process for mobile operators occurred in 2001, which was to build a completely new network on top of the legacy infrastructure. This meant that cell tower capacity and hardware had to be upgraded.

 

Special demarcation interfaces needed to be created for the new packet core or PS domain as it is known today. The early adopters of this technology coined the term 2.5 G, which meant it  supported enhanced data rate services also called EDGE (~64-240kbps). This was achieved by using multiple radio channels bonded together. However, this type of data network still relied on the underlying legacy infrastructure to transport data.

 

It soon became very clear the legacy infrastructure and the mobile frequency spectrum most operators had been originally allocated would be insufficient to meet the growing demands of mobile data users. The answer was to turbo charge the new PS packet core domain with a new network layer called UMTS or (CDMA2000 if you lived in North America). This next generation advancement required mobile operators to deploy new base stations, high speed back haul interfaces and the addition of new frequency spectrum.

 

More significantly, for the first time the new interfaces were provided on IP, rather than the expensive legacy infrastructure. Most 3G connections support a maximum download speed of 7.2Mbps, although in reality, this is far less since in built up areas the bandwidth is divided amongst all subscribers within a cell area.


It is important to realise that despite all of this technology upgrade, which has occurred in a mobile operator's network, you can still put a SIM card in the oldest GSM phone you may have lying around and make a call. In fact, it is possible to start a data session on LTE move to a poor coverage area, drop back to UMTS and finally to GSM if the tower does not support either 3G or 2.5G services.

 

This allows operators to deploy LTE technology in highly concentrated city areas first, where the greatest demand for mobile data services exist. Operators then gradually expand services to less densely populated areas as the legacy equipment reaches end of life. LTE promises to be the last significant upgrade a mobile operator will need to invest in.

 

It will eventually see the convergence of both voice and data onto a single IP enabled network, deliver data rates comparable to LAN speeds and have the ability to support radio cells ranging from a few meters to several kilometres.

 

How LTE is Being Pitched Today?

LTE networks are live in only a handful of network, but the growth in the number of planned or in development networks is staggering. The handsets, tablets and data dongles available now only support high speed data services. For voice services, users must still use the carriers legacy voice network. According to analyst firm Wireless Intelligence, the global LTE networks will reach close to 300 million connections by 2015 and will account for 3% of the world’s total cellular connections by this time.

 

At present, LTE connections stand at around 7 million worldwide but Wireless Intelligence anticipates an acceleration in the uptake from late 2012 as more LTE compatible handsets become available. Western Europe and North America will contribute over two thirds of global LTE connections until the end of 2012, when deployments and volume will pick up in Asia Pacific.

 

The latter region is expected to represent one third of the global LTE market in 2013 with 20 million connections, increasing to 100 million by 2015. By then, China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia will account for almost 80% of regional LTE connections, compared to Australia, India and the Philippines. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan will represent a combined 6% of the regional market in 2015.

According to Wireless Intelligence, by 2015, over 100 of the commercially deployed LTE networks will be located in Europe and North America, making up 50% of global LTE connections. Meanwhile, the Americas, Middle East and Africa will have a combined 50 live LTE networks, contributing 10% of world LTE connections.

VoLTE (Voice over LTE) and the IMS Domain

VoLTE,  which is still evolving, uses yet another new domain called IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). To date there are no VoLTE handsets or networks available. When complete, mobile voice services will be completely IP based, promising higher quality and voice calls than what can be obtained from legacy voice. The challenges facing VoLTE development as a global standard is smart phones themselves.

The argument is that if the device (smartphone) has such an advanced processor and mobile network connection then the user can just run a software agent like (Skype, Fring, Google talk) and choose for themselves their own voice carrier. Suddenly the mobile phone operator becomes an ISP selling data connections rather than voice minutes. However, Wireless Intelligence expects the availability of VoLTE capable handsets in late 2012 will mark the ‘tipping point’ for substantial handset volume shipments, which will fuel further LTE growth.

LTE and the Diminishing Minutes Business

Mobile operators are being squeezed hard by market forces. Carriers offer free minutes, unlimited data plans, subsidised handsets, competing for the loyalty of the same pool of users. As LTE matures, existing minute charges will disappear altogether. In order to differentiate themselves, mobile operators will need to become content providers in addition to service providers.

 

The predicted growth areas include:

Location- based services
Virtual professional services (healthcare, legal, financial)
Content distribution (Video, Music, applications)

Establishing relationships media outlets and major content studios will be critical to a carriers' success. Exclusive content and distribution agreement will differentiate operators and provide more value to the consumer than what we have today.      

 

By Angela Sutherland

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