Jarich: Has 4G moved beyond 4G World?

Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

Where 4G World first focused on WiMAX (under the WiMAX World moniker), it's evolved to focus on LTE as the industry itself largely moved on from WiMAX and the ecosystem built around it. For all intents and purposes, 4G World has become LTE World. 

To this end, the three-day event should be a showcase for the state of the LTE industry. 

In some ways, this was the case. Most major LTE vendors were present. Many of them took the occasion to launch new LTE products and solutions--against the backdrop of operators sharing their early LTE experiences and plans for the future. But in some ways, it was about much more than LTE: WiMAX was represented (marginally), and so was WiFi. The GSMA held a workshop on M2M communications (repeating a story they told earlier in the month at CTIA Enterprise and Applications). There was an NFC Summit, though NFC is just as much at home in 2G devices as it is in 4G devices. 

Amidst all of these disparate themes and topics, then, it might seem difficult to identify any cohesive 4G themes. To the contrary, a number of messages around various market segments emerged--some from the fact that networks news was often overshadowed, some from the fact that the focus of the show was somewhat scattered.

Backhaul

Key Announcements & News: Alcatel-Lucent's 7705 SAR-M launch; AOptix's entry into mobile backhaul with MB-2000 free-space optics solution; Ceragon's FibeAir IP-10Q launch, supporting up to four carriers and 4 Gbps in a single rack; Dragonwave's PMP solution for small-cell backhaul--DragonWave Avenue; DragonWave's partnership with Fiber Tower solution selling; Exalt's support for non-traditional microwave spectrum bands; and NSN's LiquidNet showcase.

Key Takeaways: Vendors have spent the past several years ramping up the capacity of their backhaul solutions in the run-up to 3G and 4G introductions. Operators have spent the past few years upgrading their backhaul networks with new capacities and IP functionality. The upgrade cycle, however, is far from over. To meet RAN capacity demands, operators see a need for even greater scalability in the transport layer--to that end, vendors need to continue innovating in the space. Beyond that is the understanding that no single technology represents a backhaul "silver bullet" and that continuing evolutions in the backhaul layer open up opportunities for new product, solution and business model introductions. 

Small Cells

Key Announcements & News: BelAir's BelAir 2100 Launch; Dragonwave's solution for small-cell backhaul - DragonWave Avenue; ip.access' converged small-cell core introduction, nanoConverge; Picochip collaboration with Tektelic on LTE small cells; Picochip work with Aricent, delivering eNodeB reference designs for pico, micro, femto and metro form factors; Sprint comments pointing to 500,000 femtocells deployed, 1 million planned by H1 2013 and LTE picocells planned for launch in 2012; Verizon Wireless comments noting that small cells would be used in the near term to boost network capacity.

Key Takeaways: For years, vendors have been arguing that small cells would be key for meeting the data demands placed on their networks; Picochip's messaging around the number of small cells needed to deliver "world class" LTE in London and Chicago is just the latest example. Operators, on the other hand, have largely been deploying 3G small cells for customer care and coverage purposes. While it's been clear since the beginning of the year that 2012 would see many LTE small cell product introductions, operator endorsements of LTE small cells for coverage as well as capacity goals are encouraging.

Service Enablement

Key Announcements & News: Alcatel-Lucent's 4G Communications solution launch; Alcatel-Lucent's highlight of Motive device management being used by Verizon Wireless in LTE offer; NSN's Customer Experience Management solution showcase, including a Facebook-based self-care application.

Key Takeaways: LTE is one part technology evolution and one part business evolution. In the same way WiMAX operator CTOs talked up new business models enabled by their proto-4G networks, the LTE ecosystem is now at a point where operators can begin exploring the services that LTE enables beyond just higher-speed data connections. To be clear, some of these services could have just as easily been launched on 3G networks (voice over EV-DO, anyone?). However, where LTE delivers a break with past network operations, it also delivers a chance to rethink the services running on those networks.

LTE Advanced

Key Announcements & News: Sprint comments that LTE-Advanced will be launched in 800 MHz spectrum by H1 2013, based on a 10x10 configuration; Verizon Wireless comments around LTE-A suggesting a cautious stance around the timing of the technology but an interest in features such as 4x4 MIMO and heterogeneous network support.

Key Takeaways. Last year's Mobile World Congress saw a handful of LTE-Advanced demonstrations, mainly showcasing R&D around capabilities such as carrier aggregation, coordinated multipoint, heterogeneous network support and relaying. It's clear that 2012 will see many more demonstrations, particularly as operators begin using LTE-A (or, at least their LTE-A deployment roadmaps) as a competitive differentiator. It's also clear, however, that the LTE-A value proposition will vary from operator to operator, potentially giving vendors an opportunity to differentiate based on where they put their LTE-A R&D dollars.

Beyond the technology themes, however, 4G World also helped to illustrate two additional 4G market and broader mobile ecosystem realities. 

First, the fact that 4G World saw no major device launches is telling. At a show where vendors throughout the 4G ecosystem were represented, we would expect network, service and device news. Instead, the most recent flagship LTE device launches came just before the show or more recently from AT&T. Why does this matter? It argues that 4G has moved beyond a niche topic where the industry simply talks to itself while waiting for mass-market engagement. It's moved to a point where consumers are getting excited by thin LTE smartphones with compelling battery life, new versions of operating systems, etc. 4G has moved beyond 4G World. 

This market evolution might also help to explain the show's diverse topics--many of which aren't necessarily linked to 4G. If 4G has left 4G World behind, then it makes sense to broaden the event's horizons. What this leaves us, however, are multiple events within weeks of one another all seeming relatively similar. CTIA's fall get-together makes the enterprise and IT its focus. Still, many of the topics addressed at that event were essentially dusted off for 4G World--topics like NFC, M2M and mHealth. This reinforces the notion that telecom tradeshow consolidation is needed more than ever. Niche events serve an important purpose. Yet, when the niche grows up and events find themselves repeating one another, something needs to change.

Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.

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