The return of 4.5G – Why LTE-A Pro is more than just a silly name

In a column from earlier this year, I referenced a survey we were planning to run around so-called 4.5G technologies. As vendor messaging around technologies began to ramp up, we could all see their value in terms of driving service provider network investments in the run-up to 5G commercialization. And yet, 4.5G as a sales tool doesn't indict the concept of 4.5G as distinct set of technologies that should help mobile operators keep up with market demands. To get a better picture, then, of how service providers are thinking about this middle-ground between 4G and 5G, we ran a survey -- reaching out to 100 cellcos and integrated carriers from around the world.

The timing was rather fortuitous; initial results came in just as we learned of the new "LTE-A Pro" moniker that the 3GPP had assigned for these technologies (from Release 13 onwards). Like any branding exercise, we can debate the merits of the "Pro" designation (everyone's an armchair branding expert). Of course, that debate needs to acknowledge that developing a new brand that isn't taken or doesn't seem biased by one party is no easy task. Regardless, the key takeaway of these branding efforts is that there's a feeling this middle ground between 4G and 5G is a real thing. And, if the point of the new naming convention is anointing a new generation of technologies (not just a new generation of marketing), it's clear that the operators we talked with in our survey agree; three out of four think 4.5G is the real deal.

Job done then, right? Everyone (well, most everyone) seems to get it?

Not quite. If 4.5G (yep, I'm sticking with that label for now) is about specific technologies, use cases, service and business requirements, there's still work to be done.  Just consider a few of the more choice/surprising findings from the survey.

4.5G Solutions Are Already Getting Sold: A major part of our survey focused on vendor perceptions and purchase expectations; which vendors a carrier would likely buy from, etc. Beyond simply being "likely" to buy 4.5G solutions, however, 74 percent of respondents said they're already buying 4.5G from at least one vendor. You might be asking if we did anything to head off this confusion, like define 4.5G up front. Yes, we defined the concept such that most operators shouldn't think they're deeply engaged in 4.5G sourcing.  At the same time, current efforts around virtualization, RAN densification and carrier aggregation could be seen as feeding into the view that 4.5G investments are taking place today. But if 4.5G really is a distinct set of technologies, this sort of conflation -- "4.5G is distinct from today's technologies, but I'm buying it today anyway" -- could be problematic. It would suggest that operator assumptions around today's solutions and networks supporting tomorrow's technologies are potentially off-base and costly in the long-run.

Technology Objectives Don't Necessarily Support Service Objectives: "Cause and effect" can be a relatively tricky thing; it's not always 100 percent clear how (or if) specific actions lead to specific results. Many results, after all, have multiple causes. And yet, with 4.5G, the relationship between specific technologies and service objectives would seem to be straightforward. If you are interested in delivering higher data rates, for example, you should be interested in carrier aggregation. If delivering low latency services is important, you should be interested in looking at TTI interval reductions. Surprisingly, this wasn't what our survey showed; the links between important service objectives and the technologies needed to support them were broken. That's not to say that there's only one way to achieve a service goal. It does, however, suggest that in the early days of 4.5G, operators don't necessarily understand the technology options before them and could well be in a position to deploy technologies that don't serve their needs.

Costs Trump User Experience: We hear a lot about how important "user experience" is to service providers. It's positioned as a barrier against churn. It's looked to as a competitive tool in the midst of price wars. Vendors sell Customer Experience Management solutions on the notion that all of this just makes sense to operators. So, when asked to choose between customer experience improvements and network cost improvements (along with a set of other options) as the most important 4.5G business objective, you'd think the choice that operators made was obvious. That is, you wouldn't think that "Costs" came out on top and "Customer Experience" came out near the bottom. But this is exactly what we found. Maybe this isn't that surprising; if nothing else, network cost containment is easier to quantify. That doesn't mean it's not disappointing and potentially a lost opportunity if 4.5G isn't effectively sold as an opportunity to do things differently than we have in the past.

LTE Traction Trumps Incumbency: 4.5G is an evolution of LTE and LTE-A. If you were selecting a 4.5G vendor, then, you'd look to one with a solid LTE track record. If you were looking for the best solution available, you might even put aside the question of incumbency -- the question of who your current vendors are. Overwhelmingly, that's how the operators we talked to actually responded. But does it reflect likely reality or is it aspirational? I'm not sure. It's nice to think that operators would put aside things like solution pricing or existing relationships as they look to source 4.5G kit. It also runs counter to how sourcing decisions have been made for years. The view does, however, suggest that many 4.5G technologies -- densification, virtualization, new spectrum architectures -- could be seen as opportunities to introduce new vendors and solutions. We can always hope!

With 5G buzz growing unabated, it may seem like discussions of the middle-ground between 4G and 5G are short-sighted. You could even argue that devising a name for these technologies is just a waste of time and money. That kind of thinking is a problem. Beyond the fact that LTE-A and LTE-A Pro will dominate deployable (commercial) network innovation for the next five years, we need to remember that LTE will be a central part of 5G by all accounts. This means that discussions of LTE-A Pro are, ultimately, discussions about 5G as well. Likewise, it means that if we don't get 4.5G right -- from a technology and vendor perspective -- we will only be complicating 5G evolutions and making the next five years of network investment much more painful than it needs to be. 

I suppose when you're looking to manage these sorts of important transitions you probably want a "Pro" on your side anyway.

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich