Earlier this month operators, vendors and industry insiders gathered to discuss Next Generation Networks. Unlike WiMAX, Femto or WiFi oriented events, NGN is not a “love fest” where everyone focuses on what could be – but rather meet to discuss and hammer out what needs to happen or take place for NGN to become a reality. This sober approach is reflected in most of the presentations from over 25 tracks where the majority of the focus was on 3G-LTE (Long Term Evolution) or “4G” if you really want to differentiate between today and tomorrow and the indoor user experience.
First off, let me be clear when I say that there is no ‘line of demarcation” between “today” and “tomorrow.” There’s no switch or lever to pull to go from 3G to 4G. A better way to think of mobile technologies is…the English language:
We have the Queen’s English, and then there’s us Americans and how we butcher the language and slang to our liking and then there’s English as the spoken word among businesses around the world (with differences in annunciation, pronunciations and emphasis) and the language has evolved from what it was hundreds of years ago with influence from Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries and Asia-Pacific to become the lingua franca of the modern era.
3G to NGN is an evolution which will go on for next decade
Yes, you may have heard of Verizon, Telia Sonera and AT&T talking about LTE in 2010-11 but that’s not the endpoint for a Next Generation Network. Today’s 3G networks are evolving due to subscribers’ needs for new and faster applications, better devices and the opportunity for operators to deploy profitable services. Several operators have seen network traffic triple and in some cases data traffic has increased over 500% in just one year.
- 3G UK traffic data from February 2009 showed a tremendous traffic uptake:
- 316 million internet pages viewed
- 189 million instant messages
- 94 million Facebook page views
- 42 million Skype calling minutes
Today's mobile networks may have the speed of a LAN in 2000 with applications developed for 2010 (Several operators are launching HSPA+ in 2009 for 21 Mbps peak downlink speeds and above). Within the next couple of years, the gap will be much closer and by 2015 the network experience is tied to the device and subscriber plans you have – and not limited by the network infrastructure. Home, work or at play – your device is the network.
The (missing) indoor subscriber experience
Today 70% of 3G capacity is impacted by signal strength inside. According to T-Mobile's own research, 43% of customers would switch operators for better home coverage. That’s a tremendous opportunity to steal market share – if you have a solution in mind.
Many operators have plans in place to test and trial Femto and other systems. Indoor as a barrier for a good mobile experience will be removed within a few years. Lower cost systems deployed closer to where the data consumption takes place, self optimizing networks and interference mitigation techniques will be put in place to help operators go after large enterprise accounts (Campus) and dense metropolitan areas.
Capacity consumption is way up and operators need ways to reduce the cost of deploying networks, including site acquisition. To make this a reality, operators need to also solve the backhaul issues and they need more spectrum. Smaller, “built from the inside out” networks are the potential solution. What we may see are “islands” of LTE where people gather and spend time (and capacity) to augment the HSDPA/HSPA+ networks for mobility and travel.
Therefore, do not expect to see LTE deployed across the entire spectrum in a country (700MHz, 800MHz, 2.6GHz) but in hotspots where capacity and coverage requirements are the highest.
By now you are asking yourself (unless you’re an operator) “but why not WiFi 802.11n and UMA (unlicensed/universal mobile access) solutions, they certainly have capacity – right? Yes and NO. The big NO is from large operators who see WiFi as a “data only, fixed” system. Not a solution for mobility and seamless handoff between macro and inside radio systems to handle mobile communication. Telefonica O2 and BT reference “complexity” and “number of service calls” as reasons for not proceeding with UMA. In brief, mobility kills the business case – it just does not work (same reasons why WiFi + MESH did not take off for city-wide and metro networks in 2002 and beyond). WiFi is great for stationary data-only access (with QoS for VoIP).
As a side note, WiMAX was barely a mention by the large operators and vendors presenting at NGN. “(WiMAX) Time has come and has passed,” someone told me. On the bright side, Analysys-Mason believes 90% of all WiMAX deployments (primarily fixed) will be in developing countries (and continents such as Africa and South America). So where-to next?
Next generation networks are evolving from within today’s 3G networks.
- We will have HSDPA/HSPA for many-many years and devices need to support 3G and LTE by 2012 (Over 93.5% of commercial WCDMA operators have commercially launched HSPA)
- Some early deployments of LTE will take place in late 2010 (over 20 operators committed to LTE). An all-LTE network? Not any time before 2018.
- LTE devices: less than a handful of devices by late 2010 and into 2011. Do not expect lots of device options (availability) until late 2012 with FDD and TDD support closer to 2014)
- Over 93.5% of commercial WCDMA operators have commercially launched HSPA with over 1400 devices option to choose from.
NGN is the lingua franca of the modern era and just like we grew up to speak English and our neighbor from France had his kids learn English in school, the next generation of people will travel and communicate over a seamless and transparent network within the next decade where the device is the network and we all speak the same language.