The next big thing in mobile telecommunications, Long-Term Evolution (LTE), will be driven principally not by cellular operators that have already built third-generation (3G) networks, but rather by those that missed out on the move to 3G services.
That’s the view of Aingharan Kanagaratnam (pictured), senior manager at Ericsson in sub-Saharan Africa, who says GSM operators who haven’t yet built wideband CDMA-based 3G networks are likely to be more keen to go directly to LTE, which offers far higher connection speeds to consumers. It is these operators that will lead the push to the new technology, he says.
Operators around the world are expected collectively to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade deploying LTE networks. Equipment manufacturers such as Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia Siemens Networks and Huawei are all hoping to profit from the investment.
However, it’s going to be some time before LTE devices are in the hands of ordinary consumers, Kanagaratnam says. Though there are already LTE modems available in markets where operators are trialling the technology, cellular handsets are still not available.
The first handsets are likely to reach the market late next year or early in 2011. As with 3G handsets, prices are also likely to be high for the first couple of years after their introduction. They’ll only be affordable for the mass market once economies of scale drive down manufacturing costs.
But the advantages of LTE are clear. Unlike 3G networks, voice on LTE is carried over the same data protocol, IP, that is used to carry data over the Internet, reducing costs for operators. And because it is capable of ultra-high speeds, LTE will allow consumers to access multimedia services that are currently possible only on fixed-line broadband.
Despite this, operators that have already deployed 3G networks may hold back on wide-scale LTE deployments, Kanagaratnam says. This is because wideband CDMA-based 3G technology still had a long roadmap ahead of it, with the technology already able to deliver Internet access speeds of up to 21Mbit/s in ideal conditions.
“The guys who are going to be the LTE early adopters are those who don’t already have a 3G licence,” he says. “For 3G operators, LTE will start a little later as it won’t give them too much of an advantage over what they can do already.”
In SA, Vodacom says it is keen to roll out LTE and is already testing the technology in its lab in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. In partnership with Huawei of China, Vodacom has already upgraded more than 1 000 base stations so they are LTE-ready. All that will be required to switch those towers over to LTE is a relatively trivial software upgrade.
“We’ll go live as soon as there is a handset in the market,” Vodacom Group CEO Pieter Uys told TechCentral in an interview in November. “They’re talking 2011, but if we’re lucky it could be by the end of next year.”
But Vodacom may be an exception to the rule. Kanagaratnam says the real push worldwide to LTE will only happen once new radio frequency bands are opened for the technology.
“[Unlike 3G,] LTE is designed to work across any type of spectrum and any number of chunks of spectrum,” he says.
Initially, LTE will be deployed mainly in the 700MHz and 2,6GHz bands. In the US, the 700MHz band, which was freed up by broadcasters moving from analogue to digital terrestrial television, is proving popular for providing LTE.
In SA, industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA, must still determine what will be done with the spectrum that is freed up when analogue broadcasting services are switched off in late 2011 or early 2012. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral