Gigabit keeps LTE in the fast lane

Image: The Untrained Eye/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the industry’s lovefest with 5G will be on full display at Mobile World Congress 2017, it’s also making the most of LTE, eking out every bit of capacity it offers.

“As in 2016, 5G will be a hot topic at Mobile World Congress. However, among all the noise, most operators will struggle to find solid business cases in support of 5G deployments any time before 2020. Gigabit LTE is going to be the headline story when it comes to network evolution,” wrote analysts at CCS Insight in a MWC forecast.

“Network operators see gigabit LTE as an opportunity to extend the return on their investments in 4G networks, and this is going to be one of the hottest tech topics in 2017 as leading operators around the world upgrade their networks,” CCS said.

Indeed, Gigabit LTE seems to be the buzzword of 2017. Last fall, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray suggested the carrier plans to offer data transmissions “approaching gigabit LTE speeds” in at least some markets this year by coupling three-way carrier aggregation with 4x4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output).

Australia’s Telstra recently debuted the world’s first commercial Gigabit LTE network and device with partners Ericsson, Qualcomm and Netgear. The service is being rolled out in select capital cities across Australia with more to come. The service is enabled with the Qualcomm Technologies’ Snapdragon X16 LTE modem, which is Qualcomm's first Gigabit LTE modem. Netgear provided the Nighthawk M1 mobile router with Gigabit LTE technology (Category 16 LTE Advanced), and Ericsson contributed its technology as well.

So far, what’s been missing are gigabit handsets, but last week, ZTE announced that it will use the MWC show to debut the ZTE Gigabit Phone, one of the first to support gigabit LTE. 

Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI Research, said a major theme during this year’s MWC will be Gigabit LTE and how it will provide the next wave of network upgrades and an incremental improvement in user experience before 5G comes to the mass market. Although smartphone modem technology typically doesn’t generate MWC front page headlines, he said it is currently the most important aspect for the success of Gigabit LTE and ABI Research expects to see announcements in this area.

Analysts also expect to see some hardware that applies massive MIMO to LTE, as well as much more around deploying LTE in unlicensed spectrum. In the U.S., Verizon and T-Mobile USA in particular have been working to deploy LTE-U small cell technology, which uses unlicensed spectrum with an anchor in licensed spectrum.

Another flavor of LTE technology, MulteFire technology does not require an anchor in licensed spectrum and allows any entity, regardless how small they are, to operate their own LTE network in unlicensed spectrum.

The MulteFire Alliance, which will have a stand in Hall H at MWC, recently celebrated a big milestone with the completion of its Release 1.0 specification. Based on 3GPP Releases 13 and 14, Release 1.0 defines how LTE operates in unlicensed and shared spectrum, two places that wireless operators and others increasingly will be using spectrum.