Low-cost devices crucial to LTE TDD launches

OvumOvum has highlighted the potential of LTE TDD on many occasions, but has also pointed out the various challenges it faces. In particular we have highlighted that the current status of the device ecosystem may negatively impact the pace of rollout.
Devices are always a crucial success factor for any kind of technology, but for LTE TDD they are even more important because most of the operators that have announced aggressive LTE TDD plans are based in emerging markets (China, India, and Russia). That means that low-cost devices will have to be made available quickly to serve these markets. In that sense, the creation of the Global TD-LTE Initiative at Mobile World Congress 2011 is a step in the right direction.
Launch of the GTI accelerates ecosystem development
Last week, China Mobile, Bharti Airtel, Softbank Mobile, Vodafone, Clearwire, E-Plus, and Aero2 officially launched the Global TD-LTE Initiative (GTI). The organization will focus on promoting the fast development of LTE TDD technology, promoting the convergence of LTE TDD and FDD modes to maximize economies of scale, and sharing the ecosystem with other TDD technologies, such as the Japanese eXtended Global Platform (XGP) technology.
In the mobile telecoms industry, scale is vital – something that Wimax can testify to. A certain scale for LTE TDD was guaranteed by strong support from China Mobile, the largest operator in the world. However, as TD-SCDMA proved to its cost, this is not necessarily enough to make LTE TDD technology a global success. China Mobile consequently considered it strategically vital to garner support from other key players. Attracting vendor’s interest was the easy part given China Mobile’s size, but making sure that other operators would consider the LTE TDD option required more imagination. This LTE TDD evangelism started years ago, often behind the scenes, and finally came to fruition with the creation of the GTI.
As a consequence, the main merit of the GTI announcement really lies in the official support for LTE TDD (and better harmonization with LTE FDD) from a number of international players. With heavyweights such as China Mobile, Bharti Airtel, Softbank Mobile, and Vodafone Group – serving more than 1.1 billion subscribers in total at the end of 2010 – the GTI is certainly heading in the right direction. However, to further contribute to the virtuous cycle that the GTI aims to fuel, the organization remains fully open to all operators and technology vendors interested in promoting LTE TDD.
China Mobile won’t be the first to launch commercial services
The GTI launch event in Barcelona confirmed what we expected: with a launch expected in 2012, China Mobile will not be the first operator in the world with commercial LTE TDD services. However, it is true that the operator’s large-scale trial networks to be deployed in seven cities in 2011 will be much bigger than the majority of LTE (TDD and FDD) commercial networks available at that time.
Among the LTE TDD frontrunners, the GTI event confirmed Aero2 from Poland as a candidate to become the first with commercial services as early as May. The operator will use equipment from Huawei to construct a converged LTE FDD/TDD network. Softbank Mobile also unveiled plans to commercially launch LTE TDD services in Japan before the end of 2011.
Like Aero2, the Japanese operator will use the 2.5GHz spectrum band. Softbank Mobile recognizes that the timeline set for its LTE TDD project is aggressive, but claims that it has full confidence in vendors to overcome the various challenges. In Softbank’s opinion, LTE TDD is better suited to mobile data services.
That is because the technology’s asymmetric nature fits well with mobile broadband data usage patterns and because of the greater technical efficiency of LTE TDD versus LTE FDD in terms of smart antenna systems.
Finally, the official support of LTE TDD by Bharti Airtel means that there are now three 2.3GHz broadband wireless access spectrum owners committed to rolling out the technology in India. Speaking at the event, the CEO of Bharti Airtel, Sanjay Kapoor, stated that support from operators in India and China will ensure scale for LTE TDD and definitely signals the end of Wimax’s hopes.
Operators in developed countries to be pragmatic
So far, operators have continued to favor the FDD variant of LTE, especially in developed markets. However, we recommend that these operators, which sometimes own unused TDD spectrum, closely monitor the development of the LTE TDD market.
The reason is simple: given the rise of data traffic, all spectrum is valuable. Carriers should continue to adopt a very pragmatic approach to LTE TDD. This consists of ensuring LTE FDD/TDD integration into network equipment now and into devices once the LTE TDD device ecosystem is sufficiently mature.
If LTE TDD becomes widely adopted, by 2014-15 LTE FDD operators may well be tempted to leverage LTE TDD cost benefits to add extra capacity to their networks.