Outstanding performance is becoming LTE's calling card

Over the past few months numerous press releases have touted so-called "speed tests" performed on early LTE networks. At first it was easy to dismiss these announcements of spectacular performance as little more than the usual new technology hype. However, as the number of reports indicating exceptional peak speeds and extremely short latencies have started to pile up, we need to consider the implications of what truly could be game-changing performance.

One of the latest and more credible tests was published by Epitiro, a UK-based firm of broadband "quality of experience" analysts. In a fairly large test conducted over a period of five days in March and resulting in 20,000 data points (i.e. not one guy sitting in Starbucks running speedtest.net), Epitiro found that TeliaSonera's LTE network in Turku, Finland delivered an average download speed of 36.1Mbps, and just as importantly delivered an average latency of 23 milliseconds, with little delay variation. Finally, Epitiro measured upload speeds of 1.7Mbps over the LTE network.

All of these metrics improved on the performance of the parallel 3G network by factors of five to 10. We can discuss the relative merits of such testing at length--it was conducted on an unloaded network for instance, from fixed locations, etc.--as has been done by several commentators discussing the relative merits of LTE versus 3G or WiMAX. But the conclusion, to me, is actually fairly clear: under good conditions, LTE will deliver performance that blows the pants off "regular" HSPA (not necessarily the many flavours of HSPA+), and WiMAX for good measure. The data rate is only one issue.

Given enough spectrum and similar MIMO configurations, all of these technologies should deliver similar speeds. However, LTE is delivering much better delay performance than both HSPA and WiMAX, and much better uplink speeds, at least compared to HSPA. These factors have a direct effect on user perception and the range of applications the network can handle (VoIP, gaming, and whatever else is coming down the pipe). Clearwire CTO John Saw, who is presumably someone who has conducted some pretty serious testing, also praised LTE in a recent video interview not only for its outstanding speed using large channels, but also for maintaining that data rate at vehicular speeds and during handovers.

So, enough about performance already; I'm a believer. The interesting question to me, working on the 4Ggear equipment and infrastructure analysis service, is, "How will this change the industry?" Basically we've got a technology on our hands that in its preliminary state seems ready to blow the socks of 3G, and do a creditable job of providing residential (i.e. high-quality, heavy-use) broadband services.

If I'm a mobile network operator I now have to make the tough decision to keep investing in HSPA upgrades (radios, backhaul, and core network) to achieve performance parity with LTE, or simply short-circuit that evolution and put my money into LTE. Obviously this is a complex, business-case driven decision: gradual investments in HSPA versus heavy up-front investment in LTE. From a marketing perspective however, in terms of being a transformative technology that could deliver dramatic advantage versus a competitor, the argument may be tilting in LTE's favour.

For the infrastructure vendors, a faster than expected shift to LTE could come as a rude shock. According to the GSMA, there are about 500 HSPA/HSPA+ networks deployed, and about 500 million users. Still, that only represents about 10 per cent of worldwide GSM subscribers, and if LTE provides a simple, direct path to 4G-level performance HSPA could still be derailed from what promised to be a long and profitable life for infrastructure providers. In this context it's worth noting that CDMA/EV-DO withered despite having 10 per cent market share. A move by operators to accelerate LTE deployment over wide areas instead of continuing HSPA expansion could mean that HSPA never becomes a cash cow for the vendors, which would be a serious blow to many vendors already suffering from thin margins and cutthroat competition. The result could be even more merger activity among the large infrastructure suppliers.

For WiMAX specialist vendors, LTE's performance also poses challenges. As mobile WiMAX and LTE pushed into carrier markets, WiMAX specialists sought refuge in vertical markets like public security, and the steady if unspectacular Broadband Wireless Access market (i.e. fixed services for business and residential). However, the BWA market demands performance to support all applications and extreme cost efficiency. Offering high-performance LTE equipment in BWA bands could be an opportunity for a vendor to shake up the staid BWA market. How many of the existing WiMAX vendors have the financial strength to attempt this is an open question, making them vulnerable to new entrants. Of the vertical markets, the smart grid initiatives seemed to promise a huge market for WiMAX. However, LTE's performance--particularly its delay performance--may make it more suitable for many electric power applications. I don't foresee that mainstream LTE providers will rush into the smart grid market or other vertical markets, but again the result could be that companies that are able to invest to quickly adapt LTE to these markets come out as the winners.

Fernando Donoso is a 4Ggear Team Leader at Maravedis. Maravedis is a leading analyst firm focusing on 4G and broadband wireless technologies and markets.