Industry Voices—Blaber: Gigabit LTE promises breadth and depth

CCS Insight has covered the advent of Gigabit LTE and its underlying technologies at length over the past 18 months. We’ve been believers in its importance since 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and three-channel carrier aggregation first appeared in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16 modem. Initial reaction was twofold. Despite the industry’s track record of providing fresh capacity and bandwidth and the market responding with new use cases and exponential growth in data consumption, the cry of “What will people possibly do with that kind of bandwidth?” was a common response.

Moreover, there was doubt about operator commitment to Gigabit LTE. This has been dismissed in 2017 with remarkable momentum. At an event jointly held between Qualcomm and T-Mobile it was highlighted that 43 carriers now either have deployed or are trialling Gigabit LTE in over 25 countries with 16 compatible devices.  

No longer a question of carrier commitment

T-Mobile said it has expanded LTE Advanced to more than 920 markets with the key technologies of 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and three-channel carrier aggregation enabled in 430 markets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some dispute to T-Mobile’s claim that this “eclipses every other national carrier.” Verizon stated that it has LTE Advanced in over 2,000 markets with Gigabit LTE enabled in 560.

Regardless of who is winning the points of presence battle, this is an important proof point that has been missing until now. While the number of carriers supporting Gigabit LTE has grown exponentially, the depth of carrier commitments has remained an open question. T-Mobile’s statistic of 430 markets and Verizon’s counter claim of 560 shows the technology is no longer limited to a handful of isolated urban centers.

Moreover, with licensed spectrum no longer a limitation, Gigabit LTE deployments and coverage look set to grow substantially. With the introduction of LTE-U and LAA, more than 90% of operators can deploy Gigabit LTE using just one band of 10MHz licensed spectrum. This is a powerful option for operators with limited spectrum assets, particularly in markets where the combination of small cells and fiber means unlicensed needn’t have a throughput compromise.

T-Mobile is one such carrier that plans to deploy LAA aggressively in combination with small cells. It expects 5,000 small cells to be deployed by the end of 2017 with a further 25,000 in 2018. This will play a big part in driving the availability of Gigabit LTE. Given that network capacity and efficiency is boosted for all users as the number of supporting devices increases, both carriers and users stand to benefit.

Chasing the 5G NR vision

As we transition to 5G NR, we should remember the case study of Gigabit LTE. Not only is it crucial as an underlying technology that will provide the coverage layer for 5G (and the control and signaling for the first launches of non-standalone 5G), but it is a reminder of why carriers are committed to network investment and development.

Despite the name, Gigabit LTE really isn’t about Gigabit speeds. It’s about improving average throughput, increasing network efficiency, reducing congestion and boosting the experience for all networks users. With the advent of LTE-U and LAA, CCS Insight predicts that Gigabit LTE momentum will continue globally over the coming two years as we pave the way for 5G. Furthermore, the LTE roadmap has at least two more generations before we get to 5G.

That 5G NR vision is grand with elaborate massive machine-to-machine and mission critical use cases. The network needs to be designed to be flexible and agile enough to accommodate these use cases, but it’s not what will drive near-term 5G investment. More capacity, greater throughput, lower latency and superior efficiency are the key ingredients. In this respect, 5G is simply a continuation of the journey from Gigabit LTE. Use cases are important, but the need is simple: data.

Data consumption is increasingly driven by mobile video but will be accelerated as computing becomes distributed and connected things proliferate. History shows: “Build it and they will come.” How it’s built will determine how many, how fast, how efficiently and how profitably.