The dramatic growth in recent years of the number of smart connected devices has led to an increased demand for mobile data with users expecting connectivity on the move 24/7. Everywhere you look you see people using smartphones, tablets and laptops to access data over the Internet. It’s not surprising that this demand is putting a large strain on the ageing 3G services, resulting in bottlenecks and frustrated end users. How many times have you experienced buffering whilst trying to watch a video?
In today’s highly competitive market, mobile operators are under even more pressure to deliver high-speed networks to end users. Although Wi-Fi coverage has helped alleviate the pressure to an extent, everyone is now looking to LTE(Long Term Evolution) technology to be the great saviour.
The UK has lagged behind in the deployment of LTE, also known as 4G, compared to the likes of the US, Canada, Scandinavia and Germany, where the technology has been deployed for some time.In fact, recent figures show that there are already 8.8 million LTE users globally (TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, 2012)and the figure is set to grow rapidly over the next few years as the technology becomes more widespread.
So why the delay? 4G has been on UK’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom’s radar since 2008, when it first started to plan an auction of the spectrum which can be used to run it. The process itself hit a number of delays partly due to the unequal allocation of spectrum currently used for 2G and 3G services, and partly due to the disputes about the fairest way to run the actual auction. Presently, the auction is set to take place in early 2013. Keep your fingers crossed that there won’t be any more delays.
However, 4G rollout plans have already started. EE (previously known as Everything Everywhere) has been given a bit of a head start by being granted permission to re-use its existing spectrum currently used for 2G services for 4G. EEhas already started trials in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham. In addition, following recent peace talks, the 800MHz spectrum will be cleared and ready for 4G five months earlier than planned. All positive steps towards a 4G future.
Despite this progress, spectrum remains one of the main challenges in the UK. Successful LTE adoption is dependent on how much spectrum mobile operators can acquire as well as how much existing 2G/3G spectrum they can refarm to use for 4G services, like EE is currently doing. Another challenge that has already been faced in other countries such as the USA is the fragmentation of spectrum bands. Although the UK can learn from the mistakes of others, even if they use the same bandwidth frequency throughout the UK, it does not guarantee LTE roaming abroad.
LTE presents new design challenges for mobile operators. The increased speeds that 4G services and the new spectrum are set to provide will require operators to re-evaluate their current backhaul network in order to be able to provide the capacity and quality that users are expecting. Operators will need to closely examine their deployed infrastructure and plan changes to support and fully utilise the spectrum they acquire along with the relationships that are being put in place, with the most cost-effective solutions. Operators should expect it to involve the use of more wireless backhaul connections to improve the cost point and connectivity to more remote users.
In urban areas where demand for capacity is at an all-time high, operators should consider using small cells. Although still in the trial stage, it is envisioned that the majority of deployments coming soon will increase capacity by deploying small cells closer to the user. Although, small cells have their own challenges, predominantly around reaching the city spaces in the most cost-effective and least intrusive way, it is a perfect complementary solution to Wi-Fi in public areas where mobile networks are at capacity. One of the biggest challenges is around the backhaul requirements, planning coverage and connecting everything together. Operators need to make sure they plan ahead and don’t lag behind by looking into small cells now.
Pricing is another aspect that operators will need to review. They will need to consider how much they will charge their customers for 4G services in order to justify the investment in the new 4G networks. If they can maintain a higher level of service and provide significantly faster speeds, they can justify charging their customers more for the privilege. However, they also need to bear in mind what their competitors will be charging to make sure they are not hugely dissimilar or they could risk losing customers over price.
At this point it’s hard to say how much 4G will cost or indeed how quickly the actual rollout will take place. Only time will tell if LTE will be sufficient to meet the increasing data demands of consumers. The one certainty is that 4G will bring about change and operators will need to plan for it carefully in order to avoid pitfalls. They need to learn from the mistakes made by operators in other countries and consider the tried and tested solutions. Good partnerships and having the right skills and talent onboard will go a long way towards an effective deployment of 4G. Finally, if you’re not planning for 4G deployment already, what are you doing? Best get a move on!