By Michael Carroll
In the midst of headlines proclaiming the latest developments towards defining 5G standards and specifications, or announcements regarding the march of the Internet of Things (IoT), it is easy to forget that many mobile operators are still in the throes of deploying LTE networks.
Granted, the rollout of LTE is well underway. For example, the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) in June reported that global LTE connections hit 1.29 billion by the end of March 2016, having grown by 182 million during the opening quarter of the year. European connections accounted for 14 per cent of that total, the GSA announced.
Indeed, the GSA explained that LTE subscription growth in the year to end-March was almost four times higher than that of 3G/HSPA. In the 12 month period, 645 million LTE subscriptions were added compared to 48 million for 3G/HSPA.
Beyond deploying 'basic' LTE, operators are also increasingly upgrading their networks to LTE-Advanced, and adding voice over LTE (VoLTE) capabilities to their previously data-only 4G networks. IHS Technology recently revealed that 23 VoLTE networks launched in the first four months of 2016, equalling the number that launched through the whole of 2014.
The research company also predicted that the global base of VoLTE users will grow from 185 million at end-2015 to 310 million in 2016, and that the figure will hit 1 billion by 2020.
Those predictions certainly suggest that LTE has a long and bright future ahead of it. However, 2020 is the year earmarked by many operators and standards bodies for the launch of 5G, and research companies are already tipping the next generation technology for rapid rollout.
Ovum, for example, recently predicted that within a year of the first networks launching, there will be commercial 5G networks in at least 20 markets globally with a total of 24 million 5G subscriptions.
Bear in mind that IHS Technology stated there were 23 LTE networks launched in the whole of 2014, and it looks like all of the attention on 5G is warranted.
However, does that mean that it is too early to stop talking about LTE? FierceWireless:Europe asked the CEOs, CTOs, and senior executives at nine operators throughout Europe for their answer. Here's what they said.
Stefano Takacs, CTO at Wind
It's definitively too soon to stop talking about LTE: 5G technology is still too far and 4G has some more capabilities to be exploited. Today, indeed, available throughput on 4G network is about 150 Mbps, whilst using LTE Advanced you can reach speeds higher than 1 Gbps.
4G can be considered the starting point for future mobile networks. Its development will lead to 5G standard definition and that will not be an alternative solution but a complementary technology in the mobile ecosystem.
Lefteris Christou, Cyta spokesman and head of Cytavision
Cyta follows closely the developments on 5G. We feel, though, that it is premature to start talking about it. The standards have not been finalised yet, and there is still a long way to go before we see commercial launches of 5G networks.
We are currently strengthening and improving our 4G network, and we are witnessing a continuous increase in the usage of mobile internet by our customers. Their current and projected needs for the medium term can very adequately be fulfilled by 4G technology.
Marcus Grausam, CTO at A1
LTE will continue to be a very relevant topic throughout the next years.
The technology is designed to work independently of any frequency range. There are ranges currently used for 2G or 3G only which can be refarmed to 4G. Refarming will be an important issue in order to use the available spectrum more efficiently -- of course, 2G and 3G will be still in use.
Gradually advanced MIMO technologies will substantially increase available bandwidth so there is enough space for increased demand. The latest extension of LTE affects IoT services which have a different approach compared to smartphone users: A comparably large number of devices frequently communicate small quantities of data. It is referred as LTE-M (LTE Machine-to-Machine, optimising LTE for the Internet of Things) and works in existing deployments with minor adaptations.
Mansoor Hanif, director of RAN at EE
The LTE story is only just beginning. Not only has it been confirmed as the most reliable mobile technology, its evolution is now clearly mapped out, with the likes of LTE-Advanced, LTE-A Pro, LTE-U and LAA, amongst a host of other variations, making their way to the forefront.
This shows that LTE is varied and well-defined, drawing in vertical industries and causing them to migrate from standalone technologies such as Tetra, Wi-Fi and LoRa. Above all, LTE is paving the way for 5G technology, which is sure to become a significant milestone in the telecoms industry.
Geert Standaert, CTO at Proximus
There is still a strong evolution path for 4G with higher order MIMO and carrier aggregation offering higher speeds up to Gbps. Some of these features will be embedded in the 5G standard as well, however we do not expect that 5G will replace LTE but rather complement it in the short and midterm.
Yves Bellego, director of Europe networks at Orange
Yes, absolutely. Whilst LTE has been launched in all our European operations we are still deploying it in rural areas and across our African operations. In addition, LTE continues to evolve with enhancements such as Carrier Aggregation, VoLTE, and -- later -- RCS, to deliver enriched voiced services.
Today, 5G is still in the research stage and we don't expect commercial services to be available until 2020 and beyond.
LTE-Advanced will also play an important role as a 'test-bed' for 5G, with some services such as IoT launched on future 4G evolutions that, in the future, will be optimised with 5G.
Heinz Herren, CTO at Swisscom
Swisscom is pushing ahead full steam with the expansion of the 4G network. By the end of 2016, 99 per cent of the Swiss population will enjoy mobile services via the 4G/LTE network. Swisscom is also aggregating the individual LTE signals on various frequencies so as to be able to offer higher speeds. Today, customers can already surf at speeds of up to 300 mbps in more than 100 locations throughout Switzerland.
Ruza Sabanovic, EVP and CTO at Telenor Group
We believe there is more to deliver for LTE, related to improved user experience capacity and efficiency. This is also clear in the plans for standardisation bodies and partners that we work with.
Most of the use cases intended for 5G can already be started on by using LTE. Naturally, there will be a step-up when 5G is ready in larger scale. Even though 5G is still some years ahead, it is important to prepare solutions and organisation. Two examples are [the] transport network handling the capacity and capabilities to benefit from network slicing/cloud. Hence, pilots on relevant topics are part of our plans.
Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, CTO at Deutsche Telekom
Deutsche Telekom is in discussions with operators all around the world. Many share our view that 4G will be adopted as a part of generic 5G -- as a cornerstone of its capability, serving the significant mobile broadband, mainly people focused, needs.
There is a lot of technology still to come in 4G. We have only just started with cloud based capabilities. These technologies will play out in the coming years.