Maravedis: Toward a unified LTE European market

By Esteban Monturus, Market Analyst - Europe & Backhaul When launching new services, as in many aspects of our lives, it is not about who does it first, but who remains for longer. An early head start can be irrelevant if long-term plans are not clear. This idea is crucial to analyze the adoption of LTE technology by mobile carriers, since the main argument for committing to LTE instead of deploying WiMAX has been the larger economies of scale that LTE will enable in the future. This depends not only on the use of the same technology for every mobile broadband service, but on the harmonization of frequency allocations in order to allow for true reuse of equipment in different parts of the world.

Despite its apparent political and economic diversity (compared to North America for example), Europe is one of the regions with better prospects regarding a common frequency plan for wireless broadband services. This is mainly due to the common allocation of 900 and 1800 MHz to GSM in the late eighties and early nineties, and subsequent assignment of the 2.1 GHz band to 3G services. Even in Eastern Europe, where CDMA technology had initially a better track than GSM, the same frequencies have been allocated to 3GPP technologies.

The obsession around launching LTE as soon as possible granted TeliaSonera a first hit using the 2.6 GHz band. Ten months later there is no additional commercial LTE service in that band in Europe, although 2.6 GHz is undoubtedly the standard band for urban deployments in the region. Again, the unified availability of that band has been possible thanks to the observation of its IMT-2000 designation. Besides Sweden and Norway, the list of European countries that have already auctioned the 2.6 GHz band include Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark and Austria, with Hungary, Poland and Belgium expected to follow by the end of this year.

The 2.6 GHz band is perfectly complemented by digital dividend spectrum, which in Europe corresponds to 790-862 MHz. Digital dividend is the best option for cost-effective rural deployment, as the German government is enforcing with its politically savvy coverage requirements in the only effective allocation of its kind in Europe so far. However, before LTE800 generalizes, potential interference to cable systems caused by mobile user devices will have to be investigated, although the issue is not gathering much attention from the industry.

Conscious of the importance of a unified market, the European Union wants to ensure the unified development of the mobile broadband market, and has already proposed 2012 as the deadline for 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2.5 GHz and 3.4-3.8 GHz harmonization, as well as January 2013 for digital dividend. This process includes refarming GSM bands so that they become technology neutral. Here is where a potential divergence could arise between countries, since LTE could be equally deployed in both GSM bands. However, at this point European carriers are de facto agreeing with each other, since they seem to be looking at 1800 MHz as the candidate for additional LTE coverage. Operators such as Elisa (Finland), Bouygues Telecom (France), Cosmote (Greece) and the joint venture CenterNet-Mobyland (Poland) plan to use this band for LTE.

Most challenges to this harmonization come from Western Europe and Russia. CDMA operators using the 450 MHz such as Sky Link (Russia), Triatel (Latvia), Diallog (Belarus), Ufon (Czech Replublic), and Telemobil (Romania) do not want to miss the LTE train, although their band is not included by 3GPP among the potential LTE bands, and their allocations are too narrow to represent much improvement with respect to previous technologies. The situation is better for CDMA 800 operators such as CDMA Ukraine (ITC), since their current allocations can be used for LTE. In Russia,Yota is having trouble with the national regulator regarding the use of LTE in the 2.5 GHz band, although the conflict's resolution seems to be just a matter of time. In this country Rostelecom is theoretically allowed to deploy LTE in 2.3 GHz, although its plans are being delayed by the absence of collaboration from the Russian Defense Ministry, the former band's licensee. Yet despite being already considered by the 3GPP for LTE, there is no consensus in Europe regarding the use of this band.

Since 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz will be the most common frequency bands for LTE, with prospects for 1800 MHz to join this list of bands, as far as 4G is concerned minimum dual band operation will be mandatory for most of user devices. Considering 2G and 3G interfaces will also be needed (at least during the introduction phase of LTE), and the extra cost and device size caused by each additional band supported, let's hope the list of bands does not grow much further, for our pockets' sake!

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