We tend to take broadband availability and affordability as a given, at least in large cities! That’s not what we found in a recent research we conducted on behalf of the wireless broadband alliance. In fact we found that More than half of world’s urban population has no broadband access. 57% of world’s population are urban unconnected, with 37% of these people living in some of the world’s wealthiest cities like New York or Shanghai.
This report presents the findings of research conducted by Maravedis on behalf of the Wireless Broadband Alliance regarding the state of the urban unconnected population in 18 large cities as well as each of their related international regions.
The conclusions presented take into consideration an analysis of urban broadband adoption at both the city and regional levels.
- The digital divide phenomenon is not limited to rural or remote areas. A staggering 57% of world’s urban population remains unconnected, either with fixed or mobile broadband. That represents more than 2.2 billion people living in cities across the world.
- Wide differences exist in broadband access when comparing metro areas. This means that an important segment of the population inside large cities are being left out of the digital age, either because they cannot afford the service or because the service is simply not available in their neighborhood.
- Large, sophisticated cities are still lagging behind in terms of broadband penetration. Los Angeles, New York City, and Shanghai are good examples. More than 25% of their population unconnected.
- Affordability and social inequality represent the primary obstacles to urban connectivity. Urban citizens still remain unconnected either because they cannot afford the broadband service or the device. The research methodology is explained at the end of the paper.
Findings at the City Level
First, analysis at the city level reveals a huge contrast when it comes to urban broadband access between large cities around the world. Among the cities researched, the lowest proportion of citizens without broadband access is in London (UK) where only 8% or 683,095 of the population is unconnected. However, in Lagos (Nigeria) the portion of unconnected is 88.2% or 10,168,090 people. This demonstrates a wide gap between cities. This is not a surprising result and is well in line with overall regional differences, explained by differences in economic, social, technology and telecom regulatory environments.
The disadvantage experienced by the citizens of Lagos is not surprising at all since the average of unconnected citizens in all the cities examined is just 37%. Also, most of the cities surpassing the average are located in the Middle East & Africa (MEA) and Asia Pacific (APAC) regions. On the other hand, the cities located in more developed regions, such as North America and Europe, and two APAC countries (Seoul and Tokyo) show considerable lower proportions of unconnected, and are below the general average.
Findings at the Regional Level
The analysis of broadband access at the regional level provides results which are consistent with those at the city level. Figure 4 and 5 show the region with the highest proportion of urban unconnected is MEA (Middle East and Africa) with 82% or 515 million unconnected citizens. That region is followed by APAC (Asia Pacific) with 68% or 1.2 billion urban unconnected citizens. This staggering number can be explained by the high proportion of urban population without broadband access in highly populated and countries, such as China and India.
Download the full report.
Some operators and vendors insist that, once the 3GPP’s Narrowband-IoT standard is widely deployed, from late 2016, the specialized LPWA (low power wide area) networks will disappear into a niche.
There will certainly be consolidation – there are too many platforms for all of them to survive in the public access mainstream, though some may hang on in private networks. But if the LPWA players can come together to support some common frameworks and allow interoperability, there is a strong possibility that some of the technologies which are being deployed now – LoRa, Sigfox, Telensa and so on – will have a long life, and perhaps gain a migration path into future 5G platforms.
As in broadband data and even mobile voice, an unlicensed spectrum option will be essential – to increase the available pool of spectrum; and to lower barriers to entry for a variety of service providers, thus encouraging proliferation of machine-to-machine services of many kinds. WiFi will hope to provide that unlicensed spectrum platform in narrowband M2M communications as it has in broadband, but its HALOW specification is behind the pack (on a similar timescale with NB-IoT, though the 3GPP system is already benefiting from a growing list of operator trials).
For now, certainly, the proprietary LPWA systems are hanging on in there. Several large cellular operators, including SK Telecom of Korea – also an early triallist and exponent of NB-IoT – have announced large-scale projects based around the existing M2M platforms. This indicates that LPWA roll-outs, despite looming NB-IoT, will not be confined to non-MNOs with no licensed spectrum option, but will be used within a patchwork of networks by cellular providers too, in the same way that WiFi is integrated into their mobile broadband plans. Technologies like LoRa give MNOs a relatively low cost way to move into new IoT services right now, and perhaps to free up their GSM spectrum, the main carrier of the MNOs’ existing M2M activity.
Nordic operator Tele2 (see separate item) illustrates well the mixture of connectivity options and tools which operators will adopt to build M2M services and revenues. SK Telecom is building a nationwide LoRa network, sourced from Samsung. The first city, Daego – Korea’s fourth largest – will go live this month, supporting services such as smart lighting and weather collection.
The largest Korean cellco has said it will invest &84m in IoT projects, from network roll-outs to its own modules, between now and 2019. Like Orange and others, it is planning LoRa and LTE deployments in parallel, addressing different applications according to their urgency, QoS requirements and other criteria. Eventually, operators like Orange have talked about migrating to a virtualized multi-network platform which will enable their first generation roll-outs to converge and interoperate, though that may well be a 5G iteration.
Another operator, Tata Communications of India, is also using LoRa for its M2M build-out in major cities, starting with New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. While SK Telecom says its deployment will be the world’s first nationwide IoT network, Tata insists its project will result in the largest, in terms of numbers of devices connected to it.
Amit Sinha Roy, VP of marketing and strategy, said the target is to cover almost 400m people though he acknowledged that “the traditional known models are changing and the use cases and revenue models of IoT have to evolve”. He added: “We decided to go for LoRa because interoperability is important for the efficient functioning of the IoT network.”
LoRa is not fully open, as the Weightless standard aimed to be, and its intellectual property is in the hands of its originator and major chip supplier Semtech. But it has a broad Alliance behind it which carries out interoperability testing and certification; a growing set of APIs and other higher layer technologies; and a business model which aligns better with cellular strategies than some of the other LPWA systems like Sigfox and Ingenu. They offer a full managed service approach while with LoRa, MNOs can control their own build-outs and devices, and work on future interworking with LTE.
Proprietary systems have become de facto standards before, and Microchip has given LoRa a boost in that direction with an end-to-end development kit. It contains two LoRa sensor nodes, a LoRaWAN gateway, pre-configured radio modules for 868 MHz or 915 MHz, and local server software.
This saves developers from having to integrate elements from different vendors like gateways, cloud services and mobile apps themselves. Steve Caldwell, general manager of Microchip’s wireless solutions group, told EETimes: “For a LoRa network to work a node must talk to a gateway, which talks to a network server. In the past these elements have involved separate development kits with different providers. To help the ecosystem grow, Microchip felt there needed to be a one-stop solution for developers.”
It is not just LoRa which is standing up robustly to the coming threat of NB-IoT. Sigfox has announced that Finland has become the nineteenth country to adopt its technology, with a new company called Connected Finland adopting Sigfox to deploy networks in large cities, and eventually to cover 85% of the population.
And Sigfox is also working with video game veteran Atari, developing connected devices that runs over the French firm’s network. Those products are currently under wraps, but there are currently 10 different ideas in development, according to Atari CEO Fred Chesnais. The first will be a geolocational luggage tracker, due to appear in the fall, with Sigfox saying its LPWAN tech will be providing location, status reports and button functions to those who license the brand. The mass market categories Atari identifies include automotive (telematics, tracking, panic buttons), family (child tracking, personal safety alarms, asset tagging), pet tracking, sports (activity and route tracking), and travel (luggage monitoring).
Chesnais is very confident in the plan, saying that Atari’s brand is well-suited to being used outside of its traditional games market, and noting that the most ardent Atari users, raised in the 1980s, are now heads of households, with disposable income to spend on such devices.
As it stands, Atari sells very few physical products, mostly just its range of Flashback consoles. It has been licensing its intellectual property, mostly its brand, to companies looking to profit from the association of a video game pioneer – which is currently owned by Atari SA (formerly Infogrames Entertainment), which acquired the company from Hasbro in 2001, and has operated under the Atari brand since 2009. The company has over 100 partners in its various studios – which take on the different apps and ventures, in cooperation with Atari, in amuch the same way that movie and content creators operate, and a plan Atari is extending to its IoT devices.
“Sigfox is transforming the way people are connecting to their objects in a simple and intuitive way. By partnering together and using Sigfox’s dedicated IoT connectivity, we are going to create amazing products with our brand,” said Chesnais, in the official announcement. “We look forward to our collaboration, and releasing new products to the mass market on a global scale.”
In the early years of 3G, there was a significant time lag between deployments in developed mobile markets, and those in most emerging economies. Indeed, some of those still have sparse 3G availability outside major city centers and, in some cases, will move straight to 4G for further capacity and coverage enhancements.
In 4G, the pattern has been very different. Some of the very first commercial roll-outs were in unexpected markets (Uzbekistan was the first country to have two competing commercial LTE networks). And deployments have been going on in parallel in all kinds of economies, especially as some emerging markets have looked to LTE to improve overall broadband availability where wired infrastructure is lacking.
These trends are starting to inject new life into some of the world’s more sleepy state-owned telcos, which suddenly have new tools with which to meet their broadband obligations and a chance to improve their cost bases and competitiveness.
In Nigeria, the national telco was defunct, but has risen from the ashes with a new brand, NTel, and plans to offer LTE services in major markets from this weekend. After years of delay, the government completed the privatization of incumbent telco Nitel, and its mobile arm Mtel, last year. It has been acquired by a consortium called Natcom, which paid $252.5m and made its final payment this month, freeing the newly named NTel to start commercial operations.
Having been out of action for so long, NTel enters a market which is already crowded, but claims its newly minted 4G network will give it an advantage over rivals like the local subsidiaries of MTN and Bharti Airtel. MTN is the market leader with a 42% share, followed by Globacom, Airtel and Etisalat. The country also has 2.1m CDMA customers, and there are also several smaller LTE providers such as Smile and Swift.
NTel will offer its 4G services first in the largest two cities, Lagos and Abuja. CEO Kamar Abass says the firm now has deals with channel partners and all the required regulatory approvals from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), including permission to offer VoLTE. So far, the company has deployed 200 kilometers of fiber in the cities of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, and about 600 mobile base stations in Lagos and Abuja running in the 900 MHz and 1.8 GHz bands and supporting LTE-Advanced with MIMO. A further 200 mobile sites are planned for this year.
Meanwhile, India’s troubled state telco BSNL is also preparing to launch 4G and hoping this will revive its fortunes and make it more competitive against private sector rivals like Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular. It has conducted a soft launch of LTE services in Chandigarh and is now looking to roll out 4G in 14 of India’s 22 operating circles this year, though it has not given a firm timing. BSNL has rights in all the circles except the major metro areas of Delhi and Mumbai, which are the preserve of the second state telco, MTNL.
Initially, BSNL will deploy LTE base stations on its existing GSM towers to save on passive infrastructure costs, but it will no doubt be looking for partnerships in that area, since its 2G sites are unlikely to be adequate to enable good coverage for 4G – BSNL’s spectrum is in the 2.5 GHz TDD band, whose relatively high frequency means that a large number of cell sites are needed for universal coverage.
BSNL is currently deciding whether to pay for its new base stations upfront from the capex budget or to adopt a revenue sharing model with its vendors. In the latter approach, it would supply its passive infrastructure and spectrum, while a vendor or franchisee would provide the base stations. BSNL would own and bill the customers and would share the revenues with its partner.
LTE subscriptions crossed the one billion barrier in the last quarter of 2015, says the GSA, but revenues from 4G equipment have already peaked, according to IHS Technology.
The GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association) and Ovum said the final tally of LTE subscriptions at the end of last year was 1.068bn, or one in seven of all mobile connections worldwide. Its growth rate has now easily outpaced that of 3G, even though HSPA remains the main data workhorse for many operators, and some countries have not yet embarked on 4G. In the fourth quarter of 2015, LTE gained 156m new connections, 75% more than 3G. However, the LTE total will not overtake the 3G installed base until 2020, believes the GSA. It also noted that GSM subscriptions fell by 141m in the quarter.
For the full year, LTE gained 552.2m subscriptions worldwide, a growth rate of 107% over 2014.
Alan Hadden, VP of research at the GSA, said: “A daily average of almost 1.7m LTE subscriptions were being signed up during Q4 2015 and the rate of LTE subscriptions growth is accelerating.”
The Asia-Pacific region has the lion’s share of LTE subscriptions, with 580m, or 54.3% of the total. By December 2015 China had passed 386m LTE connections, adding almost 84m in the fourth quarter alone. North America was the second largest LTE market with almost 237m, though its share of the world total is down at 22.2%, while Europe accounts for 14.8%.
In the Latin America and Caribbean region, subscriptions more than quadrupled to over 54m, while the Middle East ended 2015 with 32.5m – annual growth of around 110% – and Russia with over 11.7m. There are now 480 operators with commercial LTE networks in 157 countries, and the GSA predicts this will increase to 550 this year.
More than one-third of operators are now investing in LTE-Advanced deployments and upgrades, particularly focusing on the carrier aggregation options. In total, 116 operators, almost a quarter of all LTE operators, have commercially launched LTE-Advanced service in 57 countries.
As subscriptions rise, however, many of the biggest operator network roll-outs are coming to an end, creating a squeeze for equipment vendors, even as the carriers look forward to a capex breathing space in which to monetize their 4G users more profitably.
According to new figures from IHS, the fourth quarter of 2015 saw $13bn worth of macrocell roll-outs, mainly driven by LTE in India and China, but warned that the LTE market has now topped out and will start to decline this year. IHS said it expects the LTE market to decline at a compound annual rate of 13% between 2015 and 2020.
Worldwide macrocell revenues in Q415 were up 3% year-on-year and 11% on the third quarter, while mobile infrastructure software revenues grew by 17% year-on-year, led by LTE-Advanced upgrades. For the full year, the worldwide macrocell infrastructure market totaled $48bn, and quarterly LTE revenue is now $2bn higher than 2G and 3G revenue combined.
“The fast LTE roll-out ramp that occurred in China in Q4 caused LTE revenue to soar 20% sequentially, and 20% from Q4 2014,” wrote Stéphane Téral, IHS’s senior research director of mobile infrastructure. “China has reached the end of its massive LTE roll-outs led by China Unicom and China Telecom; LTE roll-outs in western and central Europe are also very close to completion, and in the Middle East 3G upgrades are complete.”
In the first instalment of Wireless Watch’s Mobile World Congress special edition, we looked at a selection of operator trials of pre-5G networks and services. Now we turn our attention to the vendors’ roadmaps, and the most interesting insights they provided in Barcelona, into developments which may well find their way into future standard or de facto technologies.
Nokia was the most aggressive of the big names in claiming to be 5G-ready – although it was a heavily overused term throughout the show. The Finnish vendor went a step further and said operators would be able to offer ‘5G’ services as early as 2017 using its new AirScale RAN platform (clearly angling for those operators which are promising ever-earlier ‘5G’ services, mainly around major sporting events in Russia and Korea, but which will, of necessity, have to use pre-standard or heavily customized kit).
AirScale will accelerate the transition to 5G when it comes by providing a smooth migration path from current LTE, Nokia promised, rehashing one of the most popular messages which vendors relay when a new generation of technology is looming. Somehow, when that upgrade becomes necessary, it’s never as automatic, low cost and software-based as the roadmaps suggest – virtualized flexible cores and software-defined radios will help, but there is still the question of the antennas, for instance. But Nokia, like its rivals, needs to persuade operators to keep investing in 4G now, rather than wait for 5G over the horizon.
CTO Hossein Moiin said the AirScale demo was “the industry’s first demonstration of how 5G will work in practice, going beyond previous experimental systems”, making 5G “no longer a distant vision” – ambitious stuff, considering the work on standards has only just begun. But some crucial elements of 5G are already accepted, Nokia argues, and these are the focus of AirScale – in particular, ultra-low latency, and a system designed with machines as well as humans in mind.
AirScale’s claim to be a vision of the future rests on its cloud-based architecture and open interfaces, which allow it to support all the radio technologies simultaneously in one base station; and to use any architecture topology with huge levels of scalability, all defined in software from the cloud. It also claims to use 60% less energy than Nokia’s current platforms. The server end of its Cloud-RAN solution uses Nokia’s AirFrame IT hardware, launched at MWC 2015, and Mobile Edge Computing is implemented on those same servers in order to harness information from the radio effectively and support low latency services.
Baseband units can be chained to support massive capacity and IoT connectivity, and a step-by-step road to virtualization is supported by Nokia’s NetAct and CloudBand offerings, which can work with legacy RANs and C-RAN at once. As well as the multiband AirScale base station, the vendor added AirScale WiFi (access points plus a WiFi controller, also running on AirFrame), and a common software layer which runs across small cells, macrocells and WiFi.
CEO Rajeev Suri said: “I believe that 5G not only must happen faster than expected – it will happen faster than expected”, which was why vendors could not wait for standards to be finalized before launching 5G products – a line also taken by ZTE with its Pre5G portfolio, though not by Huawei, which prefers the term 4.5G for its most advanced network offerings, and argues that these will meet operators’ needs for years to come, certainly until fully standardized 5G can be launched.
“5G is different. 5G must happen fast because important use cases demand it. If we know that 5G can help save lives, improve our environment and make our lives better, we need to move faster,” Suri said.
ZTE has unveiled the latest developments in its Pre5G range, the Ultra Dense Network (UDN), claiming this can provide a highly functional bridge to emerging 5G platforms. The UDN works with existing networking models but aims to enhance the user experience with a combination of techniques including interference management, suppression and mobility enhancement.
The system adopts system frequency multiplexing to address interference caused by
overlapping cells in dense networks. According to ZTE, this technique can boost downlink rates by 10 times in areas of cell overlap and will be an important component of 5G.
The equipment also uses other expected 5G technologies, but on current network infrastrucfture and sites – like Nokia, holding out the hope of a smooth migration down the road. These include massive MIMO and Multi-User Shared Access (MUSA), which ZTE has been testing for over a year. Early in 2015, it announced the first commercial base station to implement its pre5G architecture, particularly massive MIMO and MUSA, and this has completed field tests with a number of global operators, including China Mobile and Softbank.
Zhang Jianguo, wireless general manager at ZTE, said Massive MIMO “will be in commercial use in China and in other countries later this year”.
Qualcomm and Ericsson:
Qualcomm and Ericsson have announced their latest collaboration, and will work together on early trials and verification of key 5G technology components, to support the technical work required for 3GPP standardization in Release 15. The companies also said they would drive interoperability in alignment with 3GPP to enable rapid adoption of new 5G standards.
“As we did in both 3G and 4G, we are excited about collaborating with leading operators and industry stakeholders such as Ericsson in the development of a unified, more capable 5G platform” said Matt Grob, Qualcomm’s CTO. “Now that the vision and interest for 5G are well established, it is time to focus on the technical and engineering work required to support operator trials and commercial network launches.”
Intel was determined to put paid to any perception that it might be an outsider in the 5G race. Not only was it focusing heavily on virtualization and Cloud-RAN – changes to the mobile network where it has the most obvious opportunity to enter the inner circle – but it was talking up partnerships with Ericsson, Nokia, LG, Cisco and Verizon to develop technologies for the IoT, smart cities, driverless vehicles and augmented reality – all important drivers of 5G development.
“5G represents a significant shift for these networks and we think it’s essential to get ready ahead of the curve,” said Aicha Evans, general manager of the Intel communication and services group. “Rather than just being about a personal computing platform, it’s about everything that computing can connect and how it connects.”
Among the specific announcements were IoT-oriented connectivity solutions like the
Atom x3-M7272 wireless communication platform for “automotive applications capable of powering advanced security features”; and the XMM 7120M LTE modem, optimized for machine-to-machine applications.
Intel also announced a new collaboration with Cisco and its strategic partner Ericsson, to develop a 5G router. This will be submitted to the Verizon 5G Technology Forum, of which all there vendors are members, and will aim to improve speed, latency and IoT scalability for business and residential customers.
NEC has developed a prototype of a compact, A4-sized massive-element Active Antenna System (AAS) for 5G small cells operating in the lower SHF (super high frequency) bands, from 3 GHz to 6 GHz.
As well as its small form factor, the combined antenna/RF solution boasts fully digitized antenna beam control and MIMO pre-coding to improve the precision of beamforming and increase. The vendor said that, used in conjunction with NEC’s spatial multiplexing technologies, the AAS can achieve more than 10 times greater per-cell throughput than conventional LTE base stations. It is now working on trials of the AAS with NTT Docomo.
“5G communications achieve higher speeds and increased capacity through the utilization of high frequency bands which are capable of securing wider bandwidth. On the other hand, high frequency bands face the issue of heavy propagation loss in communications. As a solution to this issue, NEC has focused on beamforming technologies which improve communication distances and reduce interference,” said Nozomu Watanabe, general manager of the firm’s mobile RAN division.
NEC also issued three white papers related to 5G – ‘Optimum Network Architecture for Full-scale IoT’; ‘NFV C-RAN for efficient RAN resource allocation’; and ‘Massive MIMO for High-capacity Mobile Access’. These are the three areas which the company believes will be most central to 5G’s architecture and business case.
For the IoT, it considers coordination between Mobile Edge Computing and the cloud as well as full context awareness when allocating resources. The C-RAN paper outlines NEC’s approach to this architecture, including its proprietatry inter-cell interference mitigation techniques and its fronthaul design, and describes a migration to 5G based on “virtualization of cells”. And the third paper shows how Massive MIMO can be applied to small cells, using technologies like NEC’s new AAS.
NEC is also working with MediaTek to develop 5G air interface and chipsets.
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These were the biggest themes this year in Barcelona – no big surprises on the topic list, though there were plenty of unexpected twists within each area, many of them concerned with unexpected new alliances (Qualcomm joining the rebranded Open Interconnect Consortium; Facebook luring Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom into its Telecom Infra Project). In Wireless Watch’s two special MWC editions, published today and on Friday, we distil the essence of each of these big topics from a mass of announcements, debates and hype.
Inevitably at the center of serious discussions and marketing hype, though lent a touch of reality by the start of the first meeting of the ITU’s IMT-2020 working party, which will specify frameworks and assess candidate technologies and spectrum, around the world in Beijing. In addition to R&D wizardry, there was much discussion of real world use cases, many of them in vertical and Internet of Things markets; and endless permutations of operators, vendors and academic bodies announcing 5G alliances.
Small cells and densification:
Small cells have been on the ‘best of MWC’ list for years now, but in 2016 they are no longer in their own ghetto, but underpinning many of the year’s big architectural themes. Operators are starting to densify their 4G networks in the bid for massive capacity, and small cells are intrinsically connected to several of this year’s bid ideas, including LTE-Unlicensed and true HetNets. A significant uptick in adoption is being driven by the enterprise need for excellent mobile coverage indoors, and will be further increased by the additional of virtualization and multi-operator platforms to the small cell mix.
Virtualization and Mobile Edge Computing:
Rather like 5G, these key architectures made the shift from interesting R&D activities to concrete element of operators’ plans, in most cases a couple of years ahead of 5G, as well as being a key future enabler of the next generation of services. The European stakeholders may be concerned about dwindling influence over core modem standards, but ETSI is asserting huge influence in these higher level frameworks, via its NFV, Mobile Edge Computing and new MANO (management and orchestration) efforts, all of them creating a common platform for the most important new approaches to mobile networking.
Facebook and Google:
The two web giants had a very high profile in Barcelona, and while some of their activities mirror one another – like last year, there was plenty of talk of drones and balloons – they are certainly not forgetting that they are engaged in a bitter head-to-head, to drive the next generation of the web experience, which will be predominantly wireless. Epitomizing this fight was Google’s endorsement of RCS (Rich Communications Services), the GSMA’s ailing attempt to defend operators’ voice and messaging businesses against over-the-top alternatives like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger; and Facebook’s Telecoms Infra Project (TIP), which seeks to bring open source and hyperscale technologies into the telecoms networks, not just the data center, to shake up operator economics.
While there was plenty of analysis of the decisions of November’s World Radio Conference about 4G and potential 5G spectrum, there was also a heavy emphasis on integrating unlicensed frequencies into the carriers’ mix, as well as adopting new, flexible licensing schemes such as dynamic spectrum access. The expansion of the Qualcomm-led MuLTEFire Alliance and the imminent trials of LTE-Unlicensed set the scene, and the US’s 3.5 GHz scheme was also under the spotlight.
Internet of Things:
Since the many manifestations of the IoT are the biggest hope, for most of the mobile industry, that revenues and profits can continue to grow in future, it was unsurprising that MWC was a show about connected objects, not smartphones (despite the high profile launch of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5). There was a real attempt to relate IoT technologies to real business models, and an improved presence for the vertical industries which will work with – or compete with – the MNOs to drive the new services. Connected and driverless cars grabbed center stage as usual, but there were many other aspects to the IoT-fest, from smart factories and Industry 4.0 frameworks; to an unexpected rapprochement between Intel and Qualcomm in the relaunched Open Connectivity Foundation. And in the home of the GSMA community, there was a starring role for the upcoming 3GPP standards for low power wide area networks (LPWANs) – NB-IoT and LTE Category-M – as they embarked on the quest to fend off unlicensed spectrum challengers.
In last week’s edition, we looked at how the major OEMs will need to tread a careful balance, at this year’s Mobile World Congress, between being ahead of the pack on the 5G roadmap, and injecting plenty of life into that nearer term source of revenues, LTE-Advanced – in particular, the last full 3GPP 4G releases, 13 and 14, known as LTE-Advanced Pro.
Huawei has been calling these ‘4.5G’ for some time, and for once this is not just a marketing slogan but a real summary of how the Chinese vendor – and much of the industry – sees LTE-A Pro. A stepping stone to 5G, yes, but one which will continue to evolve in parallel with the new generation, and with significant overlap. Operators will not tolerate a complete step upgrade again, and even if new air interface technologies are introduced alongside the current OFDM-based ones (especially for the IoT), they will look to virtualization and software-defined networking to enable them to evolve their platforms gradually, in line with real customer need, and to support multiple technologies at once.
All of which makes 4.5G quite a meaningful label, for once. Huawei, the last of the big OEMs to preview its major MWC announcements, said it believed more than 60 commercial 4.5G networks would be deployed this year, ushering in a “golden five-year period” for Releases 13 and 14. “4.5G is the natural evolution of 4G and necessary transition to the 5G,” said Ryan Ding, president of products and solutions. “It can effectively protect operators’ investments and enable them to provide faster services and better user experience on the basis of existing infrastructures.”
Huawei’s definition of 4.5G, which it unveiled over a year ago, includes gigabit download speeds – which are supported in Qualcomm’s latest modem, the X16 – and sub-10ms latency. In particular, the new releases will make LTE – initially designed almost exclusively for faster mobile broadband – more suited to the Internet of Things, with new specifications like Category-M and NB-IoT, and the ability to support up to 100,000 connections per cell (the latter another of Huawei’s 4.5G criteria).
Huawei said it had already demonstrated or tested 4.5G technology with more than 20 operators in nine countries (Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Norway, Singapore, Turkey and the UAE.). It added that operators in China, Hong Kong and Singapore had all achieved gigabit transmissions using pre-standard Huawei 4.5G kit. In addition, it added that Korea and the UK had started building LTE integrated trunked radio networks, and MNOs in Korea and China had launched commercial trials of NB-IoT.
By 2020, Huawei predicts the average mobile customer will be using about 5GB of data per month and there will be around 3bn “connected things” on cellular networks. “The answer to this vision now is 4.5G,” it says.
It also said it was engaged in 5G trials with some operators, but refused to follow Ericsson in putting a number on it this (the Swedish firm claims “nearly 20”). “We will have to wait for five years or even longer for 5G,” said William Xu, Huawei’s chief marketing strategy officer. “That is why Huawei has proposed 4.5G.”
Among the actual products to support 4.5G, Huawei unveiled a new family called GigaRadio. The first members are a blade remote radio unit (RRU) and an active antenna unit. The former is 20% smaller and 50% faster than other products targeting the same space, Huawei claimed, and can support gigabit speeds.
The OEM was not only reiterating its 4.5G mantra at its pre-announcements, even though its label is coming into line with the wider LTE platform with the appearance of LTE-A Pro on the horizon. It also set out a five-point plan to address the future needs of telecoms operators undergoing the transformation to digital. The five are Big Video or video everywhere; Big IT; Big Operations, mainly focused on agility; Big Architecture, or elastic networks; and Big Pipe for ubiquitous connectivity.
The big message was clear – for digital transformation, telcos need to rethink their platforms from end to end, and only very few vendors can address every link in the chain (Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson/Cisco). And as many observers pointed out, there was a clear overlap between Huawei’s five initiatives and the key areas Ericsson identified as growth drivers in 2014. The Swedish firm saw those growth areas – video and media, cloud platforms, IP, OSS/BSS and ‘industry and society’ – growing their revenues by 20% to total $5.3bn in 2015.
To achieve similar results from its new five-point plan, Huawei said it would invest $1bn over five years in a “developer enablement program” to expand the ecosystem around its framework, and says it already has 600 partners in its 10 open labs in China, Europe and other regions.
Meanwhile, other vendors were far less coy about overusing the ‘5G’ term than Huawei. The head of Samsung’s Network business unit, Youngky Kim, previewed the Korean firm’s own MWC infrastructure plans, including what it said were key enablers of 5G such as “multilink connectivity technology, centralized radio, IoT and mmWave radio access solutions”. Kim said: “5G technology will offer us a new level of experience, which is immersive, tactile and ubiquitous. Thanks to seamless mobility, higher throughput and low latency of 5G technology, new services like hologram calls, virtual reality broadcasting of live football games and self-driving cars will enrich our lives.”
In Barcelona, Samsung promises to “make 5G technology a reality” with a demonstration of millimeter wave radios, transmitting eight UHD 4K videos at once with latency below 1ms.
On the LTE-A Pro side, it will also launch solutions to support LTE in 5 GHz spectrum (LTE-U and LTE-LAA), plus MP-TCP (multipath transfer control protocol), Distributed-RAN Inter-site Carrier Aggregation and Samsung Smart Multi-Link. It names MP-TCP as one of its “key priorities”. The technology allows aggregation of two or more separate networks running different RATs, such as WiFi, 3G, 4G, 5G and LPWA. It does not just connect to them simultaneously, as in dual or multi-connectivity, but merges the data streams from each network at the IP layer, to make aggregation simpler and faster. The technology has already been commercialized in Korea.
Meanwhile, Smart Multi-Link is based on Samsung’s Unified Core architecture. This is designed to support backward and forward compatibility by supporting cellular networks from 2G to 5G, plus non-3GPP technologies, using NFV and SDN approaches to enable multiple distributed RANs to behave as a single pool of capacity around a single core.
Also on the virtualization front, it has upgraded its Cloud-RAN platform to version 2.0+, integrating new SON (self-optimizing network) and scheduler elements. Among the improvements are the ability for base stations to detect interference at the cell edge and control radio transmission power in real time, to boost data throughput by an average of 40-50%.
For the IoT, Samsung will show off a range of offerings including an IoT-optimized core, a specialized standalone base station for IoT, gateways, and support for the LPWA technology LoRa. It will also be offering a package of equipment, sensors and services for public safety IoT applications, claiming to be preparing “beyond standards” implementations to address mission critical use cases, as well as supporting Cat-0, Cat-1, Cat-M and NB-IoT.
The operators will be vying for 5G glory as enthusiastically as the vendors. Vodafone, AT&T, NTT Docomo, Telefonica and SK Telecom are among those which will demonstrate pre-5G technologies or announce major trials. Vodafone, has announced an extended set of partnerships – with Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, Intel and Qualcomm – to research 5G technologies and prepare its networks for the transition, whatever that may involve in the real world.
Pre-standard operator trials are important because they help to define real requirements and shape the platforms in the direction of concrete business cases rather than technical wizardry. Vodafone aims to work with its partners to “define industry standards, establish technical guidelines and prepare product roadmaps”. It will evaluate the emerging 5G technologies to decide which it believes should be part of the standards; test hardware and software in its group Innovation Labs in the UK; conduct trials in global markets; and prioritize the benefits of 5G that can be brought to market by 2020.
CTO Johan Wibergh said: “The telecoms industry is still establishing what technology will deliver the benefits we expect from 5G, so it is important to establish dedicated research programmes with these leading global companies.”
Vodafone also chairs the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) 5G Requirements and Architecture group.
Over the pond, AT&T is working with Ericsson and Intel to launch a trial 5G network in Austin, Texas, in order to test emerging concepts like millimeter wave radios and virtualized RAN. Lab tests will take place in the second quarter of this year, and outdoor trials in the second half. By the end of this year, AT&T says it will provide real world connectivity to certain locations in Austin, using its selected ‘5G’ technologies, though these will initially be for fixed access only.
John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of technology and operations, said: “New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before. These technologies will be immersive, pervasive and responsive to customers. 5G will help make them a reality. 5G will reach its full potential because we will build it on a software-centric architecture that can adapt quickly to new demands and give customers more control of their network services. Our approach is simple – deliver a unified experience built with 5G, SDN, big data, security and open source software.”
Ericsson will also be showing off its 5G partnerships with Korea Telecom and NTT Docomo at MWC, demonstrating radio prototypes which support Multiuser MIMO, and beam tracking in millimeter wave bands, to boost throughput beyond 25Gbps.
Seizo Onoe, Docomo’s CTO, said in a statement: “Both companies are already conducting joint outdoor trials to understand how 5G will really perform in the field. This will enable us to plan for the new and enhanced services that we will be able to offer with 5G. We will be in a good position to highlight our commercial 5G capabilities in 2020.”
Three-carrier aggregation, TDD and 256QAM – a mounting number of trials points to a dream team for 4G
As operators push for ever-greater 4G speeds, carrier aggregation is becoming more essential, and more complicated. Combining three, four or even five bands will push LTE to new limits, and the trials are piling up. The latest results come from SK Telecom in Korea and Nokia Networks, which showed peak download speeds of 428Mbps using triband TD-LTE carrier aggregation (CA), together with 256QAM modulation.
This demonstration is a vital proof point for the TD-LTE community, said the partners, which worked with Qualcomm Snapdragon on the device modem side. Unpaired TDD spectrum is often more plentiful and affordable than FDD bands, and may provide opportunities for new or disruptive entrants. The Chinese carriers, and some others such as Sprint and Softbank, will make heavy use of FDD/TDD combinations to drive up their capacity and improve their economics.
The test used Nokia’s Flexi Multiradio 10 base station with software to aggregate three 20 MHz carriers in Band 41 spectrum (2496-2690 MHz). Load balancing capabilities were important to optimize spectrum efficiency and user experience across the carriers. The next step will be to establish a TD-LTE testbed and conduct wider trials of specific services and applications.
Tests like these are, then, important to prove the capabilities of TD-LTE to deliver the highest performance. This was the first example of TD-LTE 3xCA with 256QAM, and “lays the foundation for the introduction of TD-LTE in Korea”, according to SK Telecom. The head of its network technology R&D center, Jin-hyo Park, said: “We have showcased our readiness to prepare for the introduction of TD-LTE in Korea – which will provide an altogether unmatched service experience to our users across the country.”
Nokia added in a statement: “The trial verifies the clear benefits of 3xCA combined with 256QAM-capable devices that can boost the peak throughput from 110Mbps to 428Mbps. Nokia’s SingleRAN Advanced platform provides a strong foundation for SK Telecom to build the most advanced TD-LTE network capable of effectively addressing the demand for bandwidth-intensive services.”
Recently, Telstra of Australia became the first operator to boast a successful trial of five-carrier aggregation, working with Ericsson to get close to 1Gbps. The firms aggregated 100 MHz of Telstra’s spectrum holdings across five separate 4G channels integrated on the carrier’s LTE network.
Its group managing director for networks, Mike Wright, wrote in a blog post that end-to-end tests achieved download speeds of over 950Mbps using a specialized field test application, as well as speeds of around 843Mbps over the internet to speedtest.net.
Telstra’s commercial LTE-A network currently delivers 600Mbps peak speeds, using triband CA, in selected areas. It is also working with Ericsson on pre-5G RAN and core network projects.
And Singapore’s StarHub has been showing off some of the gains that are available from combining FDD and TDD spectrum, together with VoLTE for voice. It recently achieved the first TDD-FDD VoLTE handover using its 4G HetNet, which includes a dense roll-out of outdoor small cells, in the island state’s busy Marina Bay.
Its supplier Nokia said the deployment uses LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation technology to improve data rates, and small cells at strategic locations to handle peak-hour data demand. It also provided load balancing and project management capabilities for the trial.
“With HetNet and through our close collaboration with Nokia Networks, we are proud to deliver the world’s fastest, future-ready 4G network that can address the ever-growing data traffic demands of our customers without compromising on the quality of service, paving the way for Singapore to build the world’s first Smart Nation,” StarHub CTO Mock Pak Lum commented.
In Greece, Ericsson has worked with Cosmote on Europe’s first trial of 3xCA with 256QAM, this time with FDD spectrum. The companies demonstrated download speeds of 500Mbps in a live LTE network in November using Ericsson base stations and Networks Software 16A. The Swedish vendor said its 256QAM downlink encoding technology provides up to 33% higher downlink throughput in good radio conditions, boosting spectral efficiency.
Ericsson also recently demonstrated three-carrier aggregation and 256QAM with China Mobile in Beijing, once again using its RBS 6000 base stations in a live LTE network. This reached downlink peaks of 426Mbps in TDD mode.
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The most important decision so far from the ITU's World Radio Conference (WRC-15) is to move the 700 MHz band from a regionally to a globally harmonised allocation for mobile broadband.
The move was widely expected, but is significant nonetheless, setting the stage for global services - LTE or 5G - in the 694-790 MHz spectrum, and for major economic impact on LTE roll-out costs, in Africa in particular.
In 2007, it was allocated for this purpose in the Americas and Asia-Pacific (ITU Regions 2 and 3), but not in EMEA (Region 1). For Region 1, incorporating Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa, a decision at WRC-12 created the possibility of allocating the 700 MHz band after WRC-15 for mobile service.
However, this high level allocation does not lead magically to the economies of scale which would accompany a virgin global band. North American operators have already deployed LTE in 700 MHz, but with a fragmented band plan which is very different from those elsewhere, creating problems for handset uniformity, and roaming, within US borders, let alone internationally.
And the GSMA, which represents mobile operators, is not satisfied just with this spectrum, but wants the ITU to open up the sub-700 MHz band (470-694 MHz) for cellular use also. This spectrum, with its excellent range and indoor penetration, would provide a valuable coverage band for the machine-to-machine services which will be a bedrock of 5G business cases.
The 700 MHz decision, then, is something of a tidying-up exercise, since many countries are already allocating the frequencies and even deploying networks. In the Americas and many Asia-Pacific nations, 700 MHz was the first digital dividend spectrum to be repurposed from broadcast to mobile broadband use. Outside north America, most regulators have adopted a fairly harmonized band plan known as AP700 (driven from Asia-Pacific but also supported by most Latin American administrations).
In the EMEA region, 800 MHz was the first digital dividend and has been widely harnessed for LTE deployments or plans, with 700 MHz providing a second dividend. This region is divided on whether to follow the AP700 plan - most operators and regulators would like to get as close to it as possible, to maximize economic efficiencies and global roaming, but many will be unable to follow it completely, because of interference issues with other services.
Some countries are going ahead with 700 MHz auctions even though the frequencies will not usually be freed up until near the end of the decade, and even without full clarity on the band plans. Germany was the first European country to sell this spectrum, and France followed suit, concluding its auction last week.
The ITU said its latest decision would not harm other sectors, despite lobbying from broadcasters and aeronautical navigation agencies.
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said in a statement: "The WRC-15 decision represents a landmark in the development of broadband mobile on a worldwide scale, regardless of location, network or terminal used. It goes a long way in enabling bridging of the digital divide, while fully protecting the other services currently operated in the band."
The provisions adopted by the ITU include protections for broadcasting and aircraft navigation systems.
François Rancy, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, added: "The global harmonization of the 694-790 MHz frequency band that has been decided by WRC-15 paves the way for manufacturers and mobile operators to offer mobile broadband at an affordable price in currently underserved areas."
The biggest impact of global 700 MHz is likely to be in Africa. In Europe, the 700 MHz spectrum is likely to be incremental to many carriers' business cases, whereas in Africa, it will often be central to delivering broadband on an unprecedented scale, with the social and economic impact that delivers. There are signs of a coming mobile broadband boom in parts of this diverse continent - a report from the GSMA earlier this year forecast that the number of unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa will pass the 500m mark in 2020.
Africa delegations surprised everyone at the WRC-12 conference by getting the ITU to agree that the 700 MHz band could also become a second digital dividend in Region 1 after WRC-15. In September 2014, a meeting of the ITU and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), saw Africa become the first region in the world to come up with a harmonized band plan for both the digital dividend bands. The September meeting resulting in a coordinated mechanism for the dividend agreed by 47 sub-Saharan African countries. The consolidation of national plans conforms with the regulations originally set out in 2006 at the ITU's Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06), and with international switchover deadlines of June 2015 (for UHF) and June 2020 (for VHF in 33 countries).
Aims of digital inclusion and new services would be further supported by adding the sub-700 MHz band, argued GSMA chief regulatory officer, John Giusti. He denied that the Association is ignoring the needs of broadcasters, proposing that mobile broadband should gain a co-primary allocation, and employ the latest technology to enable harmonious sharing.
Speaking in Geneva, where the WRC is taking place, he said: "Today, the UHF band is lightly used for terrestrial broadcasting in many countries. By implementing the latest technologies, these legacy services could be maintained in a smaller amount of spectrum, maximizing the use of this valuable spectrum resource by allowing both mobile and broadcasting below 700 MHz."
He continued: "Adding a co-primary allocation in the sub-700 MHz band at WRC-15 would offer governments the flexibility to meet the changing needs of their citizens, who are increasingly accessing video content via 'second screen' mobile and tablet devices, and expand the well-established socioeconomic benefits generated by mobile broadband. There is no evidence that the existence of a co-primary allocation to mobile has had a negative impact on broadcast investment."
He said that, if no change is introduced in this band, it "would likely not be until at least 2023 before governments could revisit allocations in the sub-700 MHz band, with a further 5-10 years before it would reach the public in the form of new and innovative services."
WRC-15 runs from November 2 to November 27. While specific allocations for 5G are the remit of its successor, WRC-19, some pointers towards future spectrum policies are expected to emerge. However, some operators are likely to use frequencies, including those in 700 MHz, which are part of the current program, for new networks including specific M2M/IoT systems, and/or 5G.
Many carriers believe the propagation qualities of the 700 MHz band will be well suited to low power M2M applications, for instance in smart cities, especially as they may have achieved sufficient coverage for conventional LTE data and voice applications with existing 800 MHz assets, and are turning to higher frequencies, such as 2.6 GHz, to add capacity for consumer services.
Paired with evolving, ultra-low power variants of LTE (NB-IoT and LTE-MTC), some MNOs, especially in Europe, say they will be able to use 700 MHz frequencies to compete with specialized smart city networks such as LoRa and Sigfox. These would-be standards are gaining ground in the absence of an M2M-optimised LTE option, but they have the disadvantage of operating mainly in licence-exempt spectrum (the 868 MHz band in Europe), which has security and reliability implications for mission critical functions.
Qualcomm and others have made proposals to the 3GPP and to regulators to earmark a 2×3 MHz sub-section in the 700 MHz band, specifically for M2M and NB-IoT use. They believe that would help 4G operators be competitive in M2M markets such as smart cities, but others - including many carriers - want all spectrum to be usage-neutral and to have the freedom to deploy whatever seems most appropriate.
As operators start to prepare their networks for significant increases in capacity demand and densification, they need more of everything – spectrum, equipment and of course sites. One of the most important considerations, as MNOs consider radical changes in network architecture, is how that will affect their cell sites. According to whether they place most emphasis on enhancing macrocells with techniques like Massive MIMO; on dense small cell networks; on distributed antenna systems (DAS); or on Cloud-RAN, they will have very different site requirements, some of them easier to achieve than others.
The new architectures will make it necessary for operators to work with new partners, such as local authorities and utilities, as well as deciding whether to invest in locations themselves or rely on ‘as-a-service’ approaches. And the changes will, of course, also have profound implications for tower operators, at a time when many MNOs are moving away from owning their own sites, and the independent tower provider is on the rise.
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