E-mail makes a great tool for measuring where I am in the year. Notes with subject lines like "hold the date for MWC 2014", "time to schedule your annual appraisal", and "hey Daryl where are those two reports you promised me in 2013" all tell me another year is coming to an end. End of the year also signals the time of year where people like to look back on the previous twelve months and make predictions on the next twelve. I am no different than others in that area, as I love a good list as much as anybody. The following is my take on some of the things I expect to be the hot topics in LTE in 2014:
· Everybody will want to know about China or have a China story of his or her own. After years of waiting and trials bigger than many commercial networks, commercial LTE services will finally come to China. Given the long wait for 4G services in that country, the size of the market opportunity, and what that country means for the long-term prospects of LTE TDD, I fully expect China to remain front and center of any LTE discussion. It will be the most discussed market in 2014.
· LTE will finally get interesting in Western Europe. Despite many an operator's best efforts to milk HSPA+ like a dying cow, LTE won't be denied in 2014. Vodafone with its cash windfall from its Verizon Wireless sale has clearly communicated it plans to accelerate its 4G plans next year. We have already seen mobile operators in the UK, Spain, France, and Germany become more aggressive with LTE. While I don't expect to see Western Europe to challenge the US, Japan, or S Korea for LTE leadership, I do think Western Europe will finally start to become a bigger factor in LTE's growth. In other words expect plenty of LTE device and services push in Q4 of 2014, also know as the Christmas buying season.
· APT700 will steal LTE1800's position, as the spectrum band people want to talk about. LTE1800 (LTE deployed at 1800MHz) quickly ramped up in 2013 to become the global band. Its rapid uptake was brought about by the general availability of the band along with strong device and infrastructure ecosystem support. At the end of the third quarter of 2013 Ovum estimated the band was the most widely used in commercial LTE networks. The overwhelming success of LTE1800 will make it a non-story as its viability as a major LTE band is no longer in doubt. The spectrum discussion focus will instead shift to APT700 (Asia Pacific Telecommunity 700MHz allocation for LTE). APT700, unlike the way 700MHz was allocated in the US, calls for the allocation of the 700MHz spectrum band in two unbroken 45MHz blocks. Allocating 700MHz this way creates greater interoperability between devices. Due to how the US allocated 700Mhz devices on Verizon's LTE network will not work on AT&T's, and vice versa. Mobile operators and regulators in Asia, Pacific South America, and Africa have all come out in support for APT700. While the ecosystem isn't in place yet for it, no commercial devices are currently available, I fully expect APT700 will become widely adopted in 2014 as an important global band for both network coverage and roaming.
· A few operators will have VoLTE, but most won't. Voice over LTE or VoLTE has had a few commercial launches with MetroPCS in the US and SK Telecom and LG Uplus in S Korea. Verizon Wireless and AT&T are expected to both have commercial VoLTE offerings during 2014. But, these operators will be the exception not the rule. Most operators in 2014 will still focused on building out their LTE footprints and relying on circuit switched fallback to handle voice. Invest in VoLTE makes some sense thanks to spectral efficiencies, improved device performance, and better sound quality. But, actually using VoLTE as a tool to grow new revenues appears to be several years away at best, limiting the need for most operators to rush to deploy the technology.
· LTE-A will become more common and so too will the debates of what is actually LTE-A. In 2013 we had the first launches of what mobile operators are calling LTE-A in South Korea with LG Uplus and SK Telecom. AT&T and Verizon Wireless are both expected to launch LTE-A in 2014. EE in the UK has said it is trialing LTE-A. In 2014 I fully expect LTE-A launches will become common. At the same time I also expect there will be debates regarding what actually constitutes an LTE-A network. With the move from 2G to 3G and 3G to LTE the air interface was changed signaling a very clear move from one generation to another. The move from LTE to LTE-A does not come with a new air interface; instead it comes from a series of upgrades to the existing LTE network. The debate will come from how many different upgrades need to be implemented before the network is truly LTE-A. Marketers argue that implementing just carrier aggregation is enough to justify the LTE-A label. More technology-oriented folks will argue that LTE-A is more than just carrier aggregation and that other things like higher orders of MIMO and eICIC must be implemented before a network can carry that label. My personal take is that I really don't care one way or another, but if forced to answer I would say carrier aggregation alone is enough to label a network LTE-A. What I would argue against is rushing to market any LTE-A network based solely on carrier aggregation, as I suspect the benefits of the initial upgrades may not be always apparent to the end-user and will only cause market confusion. This is kind of similar of the evolution from WCDMA to HSPA to HSPA+. It was with HSPA+ that end-users saw a real different. LTE to LTE-A is like WCDMA to HSPA, it won't be until more LTE-A features are deployed that end-users will see a real and consistent performance jump.
A final hot topic worth a mention is 5G, which nobody really knows what it will be and really doesn't exist yet. From where I sit whatever 5G turns out to be it appears to be at least based on LTE. 5G appears to be just an easier way of saying Advanced LTE-Advanced. I am sure, however, there will be plenty said on that topic in 2014 and the decade to follow.
Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.