5G and IoT dominated headlines at the recent Mobile World Congress trade show, but there was also an implicit acknowledgement that LTE has a lot of fuel left in its its “tank.” While the industry continues to push toward 5G with hopeful new opportunities in vertical and enterprise segments with new 5G capabilities, including incremental opportunities in fixed wireless, mobile operators in developed markets meanwhile will largely promote gigabit LTE services this year. “Hero” devices like Samsung Galaxy and iPhone coming to market this year are expected to support three- to four-, or maybe even five-carrier aggregation to enable gigabit LTE services. Of course, we would need lots of additional spectrum to take advantage of the carrier aggregation feature. This is where unlicensed spectrum technology like LTE-U and LAA comes in.
I have watched with some amusement as LTE-U progressed through standards process, contentious industry debate around coexistence, and finally regulatory approval. (I even co-authored a paper highlighting a need for equitable coexistence of LTE-U back in 2014.) With regulatory approval finally secured, mobile operators, and device vendors are expected to introduce LTE-U/LAA this year to claim gigabit LTE service capability and features.
While fixed and mobile 5G developments will certainly dominate the industry headlines in coming years, deployment will center on unlicensed technologies like LTE-U and LAA in the near term, and shared spectrum technology like 3.5GHz CBRS in the mid-term. Mobile operators will look to leverage as much inexpensive spectrum as possible, to bolster high-speed features of their mobile service offerings. A key aspect that is lost in this discussion is: where will LTE-U/LAA access points or small cells be deployed? With regulatory transmit power limits, the range of these LTE-U/LAA small cells will be relatively short. Operators won’t be able to swiftly “light up” additional LTE-U carriers across their macro sites to provide ubiquitous coverage. We will likely see LTE-U and LAA lit up in selective small cell sites at key venues first.
Mobile operators have been leveraging unlicensed spectrum for a long time both implicitly (through usage-based pricing, forcing consumers to seek out Wi-Fi) and explicitly (through Wi-Fi offload onto owned and partner Wi-Fi networks at public venues like airports and coffee shops). Mobile operators will now be able to more elegantly leverage the unlicensed spectrum by more effectively controlling service quality and user experience. As previously commented, mobile operators will seek to maintain the mobility premium of bits crossing their networks even when they are using the same unlicensed spectrum as Wi-Fi. LTE in unlicensed and shared spectrum will provide a long runway for mobile operators and device vendors to innovate around peak speeds and additional capacity where most needed in hotspots. Meanwhile 5G capabilities, and new business opportunities that will be enabled through those features, will likely bear fruit in the later years. And, chances are additional spectrum in unlicensed, shared and millimeter wave bands will be leveraged one way or the other in the new “5G” services. Wireless infrastructure market will be lot more dynamic in 2017 as we expect increased variety of small cell deployments.
Kyung Mun is a Senior Analyst at Mobile Experts LLC. Mobile Experts is a network of market and technology experts that provides market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets. Over the course of his 20+ years in wireless and cable industries in a dynamic range of roles from engineering to product management and technology strategy, he has contributed to the advancement of mobile communication, while working at leading companies in the mobile value chain including Motorola, Texas Instruments, Alcatel-Lucent, and a few startups in between. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech, and studied finance and strategy at Southern Methodist University.