Schoolar: LTE at 1800 MHz is a universal band, except for North America
LTE1800's (LTE deployed at 1800MHz) profile has been on the rise as of late. The new iPhone 5, the first iPhone to have LTE, supports 1800 MHz. In the UK, EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) went commercial with the first mobile LTE network in October. If it were just these two incidences LTE1800 would be of little interest. However, these incidences are not isolated and are part of a bigger market trend.
Pulling data from Ovum's recently published Q3 2012 HSPA+/LTE tracker it is very apparent that LTE1800 has strong operator backing. Ovum has identified 70 operators that have shown interest in deploying LTE at 1800 MHz. In contrast Ovum's deployment database has the number of operators interested in 700 MHz, 800 MHz and AWS at 28, 30, and 9, respectively. Only one spectrum band in the database, 2600 MHz, has a higher level of interest at 74 operators. But, 1800 MHz has a distinct advantage over 2600 MHz.
The propagation factors of 1800 MHz are better than those of 2600 MHz. A recent report by the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) said because of those propagation benefits, base stations deployed at 1800 MHz have approximately twice the coverage capacity of those at 2600 MHz. For operators concerned about capex (and which operator isn't) this provides a substantial savings. Another cost benefit of 1800 MHz has to do with its current availability of the spectrum.
Many operators already have access to 1800 MHz. Re-farming this spectrum to support LTE allows them to move to 4G without having to bear the cost of purchasing new spectrum. Also, as in the case of EE, using 1800 MHz gives them a jump on the competition, as EE doesn't have to wait for a new spectrum auction like other mobile operators in the UK. Thanks to its ability to re-farm its existing spectrum EE will have a commercial LTE network up and running this October while it competitors will have to wait until 2013. In any competitive market, a head start can't be knocked, but a successful head start requires devices as well.
The launch of the iPhone 5 was far from the first device to support LTE1800. A July 2012 report by the GSA identified 98 LTE1800 devices. This is almost twice the number of LTE1800 devices the organization identified in January of 2012. Admittedly devices supporting LTE at 700 MHz, with 193 devices, significantly outnumber LTE1800 devices at this time, but that is a reflection of the large-scale deployments in the US. As more LTE1800 networks come online, device support should accelerate.
One of the real benefits of LTE1800, beyond what we have already discussed, is that it could well be a universal band that helps the mobile community deal with LTE spectrum fragmentation.
Currently LTE can be found deployed in over a dozen different spectrum bands. This makes it difficult for device vendors when it comes to deciding which LTE bands to support. It also makes LTE roaming a challenge as well. 1800 MHz, as it has been widely deployed for 2G networks, if re-farmed for LTE could at least provide one common band for operators and device vendors to support. The GSA estimates that over 350 operators currently have access to 1800 MHz. This would certainly help to overcome the challenges with LTE spectrum fragmentation. Ovum has identified support for LTE1800 in every region except North America. But, with CDMA networks in the US, that region is used to being a little different than the rest of the world. Also, even in areas where LTE1800 is used, Ovum doesn't expect that to be the only spectrum band deployed. Mobile operators will most likely use other bands like 700 MHz, 800 MHz, or 2600 MHz in conjunction with 1800 Mhz. Some of those other bands can be used to bridge LTE roaming between North America and the rest of the world.
While there are still plenty of challenges with LTE1800, like getting regulators to allow LTE at that band, the value of LTE1800 appears fairly clear. It can help operators save money and give them a nearly universal spectrum band. It is reasons like these that the use of LTE at 1800 MHz should continue to grow.
Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analystof Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @DHSchoolar.