Network upgrades vs. converting to LTE: Challenges operators face

Many operators have said they are committed to deploying LTE, but when pressed for details they often say that they have no firm plans and that deployments will likely be in the 2013-2015 timeframe.

HSPA+/HSPA Advanced has been considered for some time. Some of the advantages include:

  • An HSPA+ network is backward compatible with HSPA--thus the existing HSPA handsets will continue to work.
  • New HSPA+ handsets that include MIMO capabilities can be offered with greater bandwidth and higher levels of service.
  • The base stations from all leading vendors are software upgradeable, although they do typically require new head-end RF units with MIMO-AAS capability.

These factors result in lower costs and clearer upgrades than the transition to the new LTE RAN.

LTE makes all existing handsets unable to work. Users have to be either transitioned over the normal upgrade turnover period to new multimode phones or provided with new phones in a more rapid swap out. If operators choose to quickly swap out handsets, they have to pay users to upgrade or face defections to other operators. Further, when operators offer a new class of service, they usually initially attract only a small percentage of users.

The issue is made more complicated by the fact that HSPA+ provides bandwidth that is close to that provided by 3G-LTE. That raises the question: Why make a move to LTE? Because operators' positions vary, the answer has to factor in the demographics, nature and duration of existing infrastructure (if major upgrades of core networks are needed then a shift to a next generation network may make more sense). Part of the reason to move to LTE (or WiMAX) is that these networks will become the long-term evolutionary path to even higher bandwidths. However, many carriers do not need this for their mobile operations.

If the operator also wants to supply enterprise data networking, HDTV-quality video and other bandwidth-intensive applications--or if demand grows on mobile networks at a similar pace as seen on wired Internet connections--then operators may find themselves in a battle with a competitor who does offer LTE or WiMAX. That is the scenario that Clearwire hopes to see develop: the demand for bandwidth continuing to grow to the point that their service is prized by a significant portion of consumers compared with the more proven mobile capabilities of 3G-3.5G (HSPA+) networks.

However, LTE is a more complicated decision than whether the bandwidth is improved over HSPA+ or the handset transition issue: both LTE and WiMAX are flat IP networks that incorporate QoS and can provide very good VoIP service. WiMAX, according to independent studies, can provide slightly higher VoIP capacity than LTE but this can be expected to change as refinements are made and new generations of the standards emerge; they should become similar enough in VoIP capacity not to be a significant long-term issue. What is a major issue for 2G-3G operators is how they maintain current revenue: if customers are transitioned to VoIP they will likely expect it to provide unlimited calling similar to Internet broadband based VoIP service plans...Continued

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