With all three major carriers talking about their launch of 4G mobility, many business leaders are asking what impact this next generation of wireless technology will have on their business, while others are questioning the ability of the carriers to deliver on the promise of the technology.
Will the promised speed of 4G mobility (LTE) be delivered by the carriers?
There are three main issues effecting 4G rollout in Australia – politics, technology and logistics. Politics gets involved due to both the question of available spectrum. The trial LTE device that I have been using for the last few weeks operates of legacy 2G spectrum at 1900Mhz, unfortunately this has two technology problems – firstly it is a higher frequency compared to the 700Mhz spectrum proposed for the eventual 4G rollout and it suffers from similar in-building signal coverage limitations as 2100Mhz used in some 3G networks. Secondly the use of 1900Mhz spectrum limits the availability of handsets and other devices. Unfortunately neither of these issues is likely to go away in the short term. Firstly the government is unlikely to fast-track the digital dividend auctions of 700Mhz spectrum which firstly requires the successful migration of thousands of pensioners (and other voters) onto digital television set-top boxes; secondly, unlike other spectrum ranges, the 700MHz spectrum is not consistently defined internationally which will make sourcing a wide range of compatible devices a challenge for the carriers. The carrier’s great hope for worldwide interoperability is way up at 2600Mhz and will suffer the same in-building coverage problems as 1900Mhz. The actual speed of LTE is affected by a number of issues; the most important of these initially is backhaul capacity. If you’re simply adding a different radio interface to your existing oversubscribed base station, the user experienced download speed will not improve. The three mobile carriers in Australia have between 7400 and 3600 base stations each. You can image the logistics of simply adding the new radio hardware and tuning the coverage patters for that many sites, when you add the requirement for a significant upgrade to the backhaul network capacity you can imagine that it will take a fair amount of Capex, planning and time. Adding the logistics of performing this upgrade while not causing downtime to the existing networks means that it will be some time before 97% of the population will get to enjoy the full benefit of the technology.
Will 4G mobility finally kill the telco’s voice minute revenue base?
How quickly the carriers transition away from their current voice tariffing will be governed by commercial pressure, much of which will be played out in the consumer market. Businesses do not need to wait however as the 4G technology provides an enterprise grade mechanism to move away from per minute mobile voice charges. 4G has been designed as a cellular mobile data network based on packet switched technology so 4G voice services will be effectively based on IPtel. The improved latency, bandwidth and class of service (COS) capability of LTE offers significant improvements on 3G and provide a platform for reliable voice over IP on mobile data services. Businesses can immediately take advantage of this by leveraging the existing mobile device clients available on common devices with their PABX infrastructure. Consumers will continue to jump onboard technologies like Skype (Microsoft) and Facetime (Apple) to make both voice and video calls to anyone. The carriers will be left providing data only plans with the customer deciding on what applications use it.
An interesting development is Telstra’s announcement to wholesale its 3G network as it prepares to shift its retail focus to 4G in 2012. It remains to be seen how many service providers take up this new wholesale offer and it can be expected that there will be a new round of competition in the 3G market that may be beneficial for tactical deployments or short term contract extensions.
In my recent travels with a trial LTE device I have been keenly testing achievable throughput speeds and network latency. The carrier that provided my trial device has added the additional radio interface directly into their existing 3G network using a common backhaul capacity. This means that although the radio side of the connection is only lightly used by the selected few who have trial devices, the backhaul network is heavily used. I have used the device in 3 states so far and the results have been mixed, yet quite exciting. The average round-trip delay to a local server ranged between 25 and 35msec, and I often achieved download speeds (as measured by speedtest.net) of around 50Mbit/sec and upload speeds of 15-20Mbit/sec. Interestingly enough when tests were undertaken around peak usage times it was the download speed that was degraded due to backhaul network congestion, often resulting in faster upload than download results.
In summary, organisations must be considering the impacts of 4G mobility in both their telecommunications planning and IT strategic roadmaps now. Although very few organisations will be considering the imminent deployment of 4G to support significant changes to business process, or be seeking to undertake organisation wide device upgrades, tactical deployments (such as being used to provide a backup network paths) and proof of concepts trials will common in 2012. Certainly any telecommunications strategy or architecture decision and/or procurement activity should being considering that 4G will have significant impacts in the near term. Beyond Technology Consultants are helping numerous organisations through the planning cycle for this today and can provide you the insights to ensure your success.