Author(s): Geoff Blaber
CCS Insight has covered the advent of gigabit LTE and its underlying technologies at length over the past 18 months. We've been believers in its importance since the three key enabling technologies of 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and three-carrier aggregation first appeared in Qualcomm's Snapdragon X16 modem.
Initial reaction to gigabit LTE was mixed. Despite the industry's track record of providing fresh capacity and bandwidth, and the market responding with new uses and exponential growth in data consumption, the cry of "what will people possibly do with that kind of bandwidth?" was a common response.
Moreover, there was doubt about operator commitment to gigabit LTE, but this has been dismissed in 2017 with remarkable momentum. At an event held jointly by Qualcomm and T-Mobile US, it was highlighted that, to date, 43 operators have either deployed or are trialing gigabit LTE in over 25 countries with 16 compatible devices.
In the case of T-Mobile, the carrier said that it has expanded LTE-Advanced to more than 920 markets, and that the principal technologies of 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and three-carrier aggregation are enabled in 430 markets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's some dispute to T-Mobile's claim that this "eclipses every other national carrier". Verizon affirmed that it has LTE-Advanced in over 2,000 markets, with gigabit LTE enabled in 560.
Regardless of who is winning the battle for points of presence, this is important evidence that has been missing until now. Although the number of operators supporting gigabit LTE has expanded rapidly, the depth of their commitment has remained an open question. T-Mobile's statistic of 430 markets and Verizon's counter claim of 560 shows the technology is no longer limited to a handful of isolated urban centres.
Furthermore, as licensed spectrum is no longer a limitation, gigabit LTE deployments and coverage are set to grow substantially. With the introduction of LTE-U and Licensed-Assisted Access (LAA), more than 90 percent of operators can roll out gigabit LTE using just one band of 10 MHz licensed spectrum. This is a powerful option for operators with limited spectrum assets, particularly in markets where the combination of small cells and fibre means unlicensed spectrum needn't have a compromise on throughput.
T-Mobile is one such carrier that plans to keenly roll out LAA in combination with small cells. It expects 5,000 small cells to be deployed by the end of 2017 and a further 25,000 in 2018. This will play a big part in spreading the availability of gigabit LTE. Both operators and consumers stand to benefit; as the number of supporting devices increases, network capacity and efficiency are boosted for all users.
As we transition to 5G New Radio, we should remember the case study of gigabit LTE. Not only is it crucial as an underlying technology that will offer the coverage layer for 5G (and the control and signalling for the first launches of non-standalone 5G), but it's also a reminder of why operators are committed to network investment and development.
Despite the name, gigabit LTE really isn't about gigabit speeds. It's about improving average throughput, increasing network efficiency, reducing congestion and enhancing the experience for all networks users. With the rise of LTE-U and LAA, we predict that momentum for gigabit LTE will continue globally over the coming two years, as the industry paves the way for 5G. Furthermore, the LTE road map has at least two more generations before we get to 5G.
The vision for 5G New Radio is grand, with elaborate massive machine-to-machine and mission-critical uses. The network must be designed to be flexible and agile enough to serve these purposes, but this won't be the main driver of 5G investment in the near term. More capacity, greater throughput, lower latency and superior efficiency are the core ingredients. In this respect, 5G is simply a continuation of the journey from gigabit LTE. Use cases are important but the need is simple, and that's data.
Data consumption is increasingly fuelled by mobile video content, but it will accelerate as computing becomes distributed and connected "things" proliferate. As history shows, "build it and they will come". How it's built will determine how many, how fast, how efficiently and how profitably.
A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 16 November 2017 and is available here.