LAS VEGAS--There are 321 LTE networks deployed worldwide, but only 20 that are upgraded to offer LTE-Advanced capabilities such as carrier aggregation. So while the hype around 5G continues to grow, 4G Americas wants to get the message out that there is still "a huge runway for LTE Advanced in the future," said Chris Pearson, president of trade group 4G Americas.
While the operator members of 4G Americas are interested in 5G, the majority are primarily focused on evolving their networks to LTE-Advanced for the immediate future, Pearson said.
"Most of our operators are fairly reserved in stating what they're going to do and when because there is no definition of 5G," Pearson told FierceWirelessTech on the sidelines of CTIA's Super Mobility Week.
"LTE and the all-IP enablement that it delivers gives you a platform to continue to innovate and build on. So we want to make sure that we do not lose sight of the value and the runway that is left in an LTE roadmap as we continue to explore migrating to other capabilities and technologies," said Kris Rinne, 4G Americas chairwoman and senior vice president, network technologies, AT&T (NYSE: T) Labs. Rinne is retiring from both positions at the end of 2014.
While operators, many of which have spent billions of dollars on LTE deployments, work to evolve their networks to LTE-Advanced--adding features such as carrier aggregation, enhanced inter-cell interference coordination (eICIC), coordinated multipoint (CoMP), advanced HetNet capabilities and more--they recognize the need to look beyond the next five or six years, Pearson said. That is driving their interest in 5G, which could start being deployed commercially around 2020.
Network functions virtualization (NFV) is expected to play a big role in 5G. The NFV ISG (industry specification group) of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) is working to standardize approaches to NFV, but Rinne noted that many virtualization functions will not necessarily be attached to standards and can be implemented well in advance of 5G's arrival.
Rinne also addressed the use of licensed vs. unlicensed technologies, saying both have a role to play in current and next-generation wireless networks. However, she noted the industry could do a better job of educating regulators regarding the spectral efficiencies inherent in technologies deployed over licensed spectrum due to those technologies' end-to-end network management capabilities.
She noted the issue of licensed vs. unlicensed technologies impacts the debate currently going on regarding the FCC's plans to open the 3.5 GHz band via spectrum sharing. Rinne said the commission should develop a plan that provides "sharing with certainty," so operators investing in network equipment and devices that can operate in the 3.5 GHz band are assured of being able to access the spectrum when and where it is needed.
"If [the spectrum] is not going to be available in my busiest hour on my busiest day, then I'll invest someplace else," Rinne said.
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LTE Advanced expected to be in 40 networks globally by year-end