Author(s): Ben Wood
On receiving an invitation to attend the launch of Telstra's gigabit LTE service in Sydney, it seemed liked an awfully long trip from London to see lots of bits and bytes travelling quickly across a mobile network. But on reflection it soon became clear that this was an opportunity to see the start of a new chapter in the history of cellular data.
When I started out in the mobile industry in 1994, GSM was just coming on stream and I was blown away by the fact that we were going to be able to offer 9,600 bps on the Vodafone network in the UK. This was a massive step up from the 2,400 bps that lots of people were still using on fixed-line modems!
The scale of the progress since then was underlined by a Telstra executive at the launch event, who revealed that these days "a single customer's smartphone can deliver 20 times the data rate of the entire demand on the Telstra network just over 10 years ago". Gigabit LTE will improve that performance by a further order of magnitude.
Telstra's gigabit LTE service uses Netgear's Nighthawk M1 mobile router, which incorporates the latest Snapdragon X16 LTE modem from Qualcomm and connects to Telstra's Ericsson-powered LTE network. It delivers lightning-fast connectivity. While at Telstra's offices in Sydney, I was able to consistently achieve download speeds of over 900 Mbps and uploads beyond 100 Mbps, according to Ookla's Speedtest service. Over the next few days I'm hoping to use the service all over the city to really get a taste of what it can deliver.
So what on earth are we going to use all that bandwidth for? Qualcomm and Telstra offered lots of examples including streaming high-resolution video from services like Netflix, watching 4K 360-degree content on a virtual reality headset and downloading and uploading massive files via a PC. But I'd contend that we may not even know what the main applications will be yet.
However, by the end of 2017 there will be numerous 4G networks worldwide supporting gigabit LTE and I predict new uses will quickly emerge. In fact, I believe gigabit LTE will play a vital role in helping solidify the business case for 5G technology and it will certainly act as test bed for many of the applications that will become synonymous with 5G when it arrives.
Over the years I have observed that however much bandwidth networks provide, people will always find ways to use it. Improved bandwidth has always been a catalyst for the development of new services and experiences.
Furthermore, it's worth remembering that gigabit LTE is not about users immediately having speeds of 1 Gbps all the time. In fact, this is an unrealistic expectation the mobile industry must be careful to avoid. Yet the ability to reliably offer a consistent 100 Mbps will be transformational and there are lots of other network benefits that associated technologies such as 256 QAM and 4 x 4 MIMO will deliver.
The advent of gigabit LTE has the potential to be a win-win for all involved. For device makers it provides consumers with an incentive to buy a new smartphone at a time when upgrades have become increasingly incremental from one device to the next.
For network operators it provides an opportunity to offer, and charge for, a premium service while also benefitting from users spending less time tying up valuable network resources.
And for consumers, who use increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications, gigabit LTE offers a significantly improved user experience.
Now we just have to wait and see how much the service is going to cost. However, even if it starts at a significant premium, history has shown that prices usually drop and bandwidth usage typically continues to rise. For people keen to understand how mobile usage will evolve, I'd recommend keeping a close eye on gigabit LTE deployments.